Ben Roethlisberger tries to turn back time
It took only one play for the Pittsburgh Steelers to realize Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t changed a bit.
“He threw me a long bomb right on the money,” receiver Mike Wallace said about the first play of Roethlisberger’s return to practice last week. “I guess it was kind of like a statement, letting them know, ‘I’m here.’ ”
But to hear Roethlisberger tell it, the old Big Ben is long gone.
“I’m going back to the person I was raised to be, the person I was before all this,” the quarterback said Wednesday. “It’s not like I’m going back to being Big Ben and having all these issues.”
Those issues have had Roethlisberger in the harsh light of scrutiny for the past five months. He returned during the Steelers’ week off from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. He will resume his starting slot Sunday in a home game against Cleveland.
There’s no need to remind the people of Pittsburgh that Roethlisberger was missing. The 3-1 Steelers are ranked last in passing yards (136.0 a game) and pass attempts (81). Pro Bowl receiver Hines Wards leads them in receptions — and he has only 12 in four games. Because of injuries the Steelers have already cycled through quarterbacks Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch.
That sets the stage for Roethlisberger’s return.
“I’m not going out there trying to be Superman. I’m just going to go out and try to play my game,” Roethlisberger said. “If we put up 20 yards and win 3-0, a win is a win.”
Still, the expectations for him are lofty. Said Wallace: “He’s a huge part of our offense. We have our leader back.”
Roethlisberger’s career in Pittsburgh depends on his doing a far better job of leading by example. His suspension stemmed from a sexual assault complaint in Georgia. The allegations did not result in criminal charges — and he denies any wrongdoing — but he faced a similar accusation earlier in his career, and he continues to be under the microscope for his behavior.
Fellow Steelers say they notice positive changes from a player who was aloof and largely out of touch with the impressions he left on people.
“The person we see now is totally different,” Ward said. “He’s hanging out with everybody, not just certain guys on the team. It’s a team unity thing, and I think he has a greater appreciation of football now that it was taken away.”
Said safety Troy Polamalu: “I can imagine undergoing something like that would change somebody immediately.”
By the account of players and reporters who are around the quarterback on a daily basis, Roethlisberger has worked hard to repair his image with the league, teammates, the media, and the public. He spends a lot of his free time with his parents, who moved from their home in Findlay, Ohio, to a farm outside of Pittsburgh.
“Ben’s got a better support system around him than he’s ever had before,” said his agent, Ryan Tollner. “He’s certainly on the right track. I’m not saying that he’s arrived. This is going to be a long process. But isn’t that the truth for all of us?”
Before the first open-to-the-public practice at training camp this summer, Ward noticed Roethlisberger seemed especially nervous about how he would be received by Steelers fans. So, in a gesture of solidarity, the receiver offered to walk with him down the long flight of steps that lead to the practice field.
“I said, ‘Come on. Let’s go together. If they’re going to boo you, they’re booing me right there along with you,’ ” Ward said. “I didn’t hear any negative responses.”
But those negative responses do exist, even in Steelers-crazy Pittsburgh, where a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback would normally be universally embraced.
“You kind of have to separate the player and the person,” said Steelers fan Cassandra Schoedel, a cashier at a supermarket near team headquarters.
Steelers fan Albert Donnenberg, a University of Pittsburgh medical professor, scoffs at the notion athletes are seen as role models in the first place.
“I’m a scientist,” he said, “so I look at it this way: The joint probability of being a moral role model and an elite athlete? Forget about it. Ben’s a jerk, but he’s our jerk.”
Roethlisberger said he’s hoping to be cheered Sunday. He got a warm reception this summer in exhibition games — he started three, playing about a quarter in each — but he also has to know he has tested the limits of public tolerance. A significant segment of Steelers fans wanted the franchise to trade Roethlisberger in the wake of his latest incident, just as the club traded troubled receiver Santonio Holmes.
The NFL’s offensive rookie of the year in 2004, and a Super Bowl winner in 2005, Roethlisberger had near-instant success and millions of dollars to his name. With that came a two-ton sense of entitlement.
“When people start telling you how great you are, you start to believe it,” he said. “I always said, ‘Football’s what I do, it’s not who I am.’ But after a while you start to go, ‘Maybe football is who I am.’ That’s not who I was raised to be. That’s not what my core values are.”
Among the most vocal and visible Roethlisberger critics has been Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who won four Super Bowls with the Steelers. He said the Steelers “should have dumped” Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger said he made an effort to extend an olive branch to Bradshaw within the past two months, leaving an unreturned voicemail.
“I’ve always said how awesome he is,” Roethlisberger said of Bradshaw, who could not be reached for comment. “He has everything I want: Super Bowls, Hall of Fame, maybe the greatest to play quarterback — definitely as a Steeler. All the things that he’s said, I’m not really sure where they came from, but no hard feelings on my side.”
Ward, among his biggest supporters, conceded it’s impossible to know if the quarterback’s apparent changes are lasting or simply convenient.
“All I know is he’s making a conscious effort to be a better person,” Ward said. “People will always say, ‘Is it a front? Is it a show? Is he doing it just to do it?’
“Time will tell.”