MMQB Mail: Roethlisberger relies on his actions as he rehabs image
Ben Roethlisberger is being counseled by Bill Cowher, Merrill Hoge, others
From all appearances, Roethlisberger is off to good start doing the right things
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LATROBE, Pa. -- Thirteen months ago, I convened five NFL quarterbacks in a room in Lake Tahoe to have a wide-ranging discussion for Sports Illustrated on the state of the position today. But it almost didn't happen the way I wanted it.
The day before we were to sit down in a restaurant overlooking a golf course, Ben Roethlisberger, who had won his second Super Bowl a few months earlier, told me he wasn't going to do it. Didn't want to. Was too busy. I told him he agreed to do it, and he had to keep his word -- months of planning and arm-twisting had gone into it. So Roethlisberger did it, but he wasn't happy about it. He big-dogged the photographer flown in for the occasion. Roethlisberger didn't give his best effort in the roundtable discussion; he was either texting or talking to one of the other quarterbacks or making calls a good third of the time. He left the room first when it was over, and a couple of us just looked at each other and said, in so many words, "What is wrong with that guy?''
Since then, there have been allegations of sexual impropriety with a hotel concierge and with a 20-year-old Georgia college student, police investigations that dragged Roethlisberger's name through the mud in two states, and an NFL suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy. For being a cad, at the least.
I'd heard Roethlisberger spent his time away from football trying to go back from being Big Ben to a football player named Roethlisberger. The football establishment -- the Steelers, the rabid fans of the team, the public that never says no to a star quarterback -- combined with an immature kid to create a monster. Now, I'd heard, he'd spent time back with his father and stepmother, who recently moved from Ohio to Western Pennsylvania. He'd gotten some good counseling, not only from professional therapists but also from his first Steelers coach, Bill Cowher, and with-it former Steeler Merril Hoge.
Roethlisberger used to avoid the local press or either talk down to them or give them nothing of himself; now he asks a couple of them for advice. He never was much of a teacher on the field to the young receivers. "Now he's helping every one of them,'' said wideout Mike Wallace. "He wants to be sure every one of them gets all the help he can give 'em, so they all have a fair shot.'' He used to avoid the never-ending autograph lines in camp; now, daily, he signs. Late Monday afternoon, a boy of about six started crying when Roethlisberger missed him, and Roethlisberger went back to sign his yellow Terrible Towel.
"I can tell you he's making a valiant effort to get his life right,'' said teammate Hines Ward outside the training camp cafeteria Monday at lunch. "He's night and day. He's joking with guys, all the guys, whereas he used to be kind of clique-ish. He's trying to repair his relationship with the fans. It's a great sign.''
I spoke with Roethlisberger for about 10 minutes. No great revelations. I was a little disappointed when I asked him what he felt he had to do to redeem himself publicly and he said, "Win. Win a championship.'' I meant redeeming himself off the field. But I think he wants to be known as a football player now, to his teammates and his fans, and not Big Ben the sideshow. He also knows talking about the situation and making promises about the kind of man he's going to be isn't going to change anyone's mind about him. He has to prove he's changed, every day, instead of going on Oprah. It's time for actions, not words.
"What have you learned about yourself through all of this?'' I wondered.
"'I've learned a lot,'' he said, tapping his heart. "But I'm going to keep it in here for now. Every life is a book, and I'm on a new chapter now. I like where I am.''
The Steelers will find out no later than the week before the season whether Roethlisberger will have his six-game NFL ban reduced to four by Commissioner Roger Goodell. The smarter Byron Leftwich has the edge over the more mobile Dennis Dixon to start the opener, but it's still a fluid quarterback situation. For the length of the suspension, Roethlisberger can't go to the practice facility or have contact with any of the coaches. It's likely he'll work out mostly on his own -- he wants to go through a football workout, in cleats, daily -- and find someone to throw to.
"So far he's handled his situation well,'' club president Art Rooney II said. "He's been determined to handle all things in his life better.''
And that's about the end of it for now. He's got to prove the Steelers made the right call by not jettisoning him at the major crisis point last winter. Rooney told me in March that Roethlisberger's actions would speak much louder than any words he said. Not much has changed in that regard -- except Roethlisberger is off to a good start doing the right things.
A note about preseason coverage after taking a few e-mail and Twitter shots for either not seeing preseason games over the weekend or giving them short shrift in the Monday column.
To see teams and spend preseason time with their players and coaches, I've found the best way to handle camps is to have conversations before and after practice. Doing that means I don't get to see a lot of the preseason games, because I'm usually traveling at night to make it to the next camp -- and when I'm in a hotel while the games are on, the hotels very rarely have NFL Network or anything but a network game on. (Although late Sunday night, after missing the Denver-Cincinnati game, I was given a pass to see the game streamed live on NFL.com, which I'll do some next weekend when I'm home cranking out more copy for SI's NFL preview issue).
Seems if I ignore the games and write nothing, you call me for shirking my job. If I watch ESPN highlights and read the box scores and make some not-very-deep observations, I'm shallow.
In my job, I think it's more important to spend an hour with Andy Reid, a half-hour with Justin Tuck, extended time with Rex Ryan and Bart Scott, and meet and get to know Mike Wallace of the Steelers than it is to station myself somewhere to watch preseason games. If I wanted to do both, I'd miss at least half the teams I'm seeing out here.
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