Chasten The Dream
A humbled Ben Roethlisberger returned from his suspension intent on proving he'd changed. He could win his third ring on Sunday in Dallas, while winning back fans remains a work in progress
This story appears in the February 7, 2011 issue of Sports Illustrated.
On the first Tuesday of September, George Whitfield Jr. pulled his car onto the property in Hampton Township, Pa., belonging to Ben Roethlisberger, the excommunicated Steelers quarterback who was beginning a monthlong stint during which he was forbidden contact with his team. A quarterback guru from Southern California, Whitfield was armed with all of the accoutrements for his stay in Pittsburgh -- clothes, footballs, whiteboards, markers, easels, video equipment -- but none of it could fully prepare him for the circumstances. Six months earlier Roethlisberger had been accused of sexual assault for the second time in a year, and the city of Pittsburgh was still reeling in the aftermath. While Roethlisberger was not charged in either instance, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for the first six games of the season for violating the league's personal-conduct policy (a punishment Goodell later reduced to four), and Roethlisberger's status as a local hero had been compromised. Rasmussen Reports, a media company more often linked to politics than pro sports, conducted a telephone poll of Pennsylvanians in the spring and found that only 24% viewed Roethlisberger favorably.
Once inside the house Whitfield found Roethlisberger gathering his equipment for their workout -- a Steelers helmet, shoulder pads -- but both men were distracted by the chatter coming from the television. The hosts on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption were discussing his teammates' decision not to vote Roethlisberger a captain, for the first time in three years.
"It was weird," Whitfield remembers. "I now had this perspective on what it must be like to be famous and revered and, to some extent, polarizing."
Whitfield recalls watching Roethlisberger as the quarterback's life was being parsed on the airwaves. Roethlisberger listened to the commentary, then shrugged. "I put myself in this situation," he told Whitfield, before heading out into the late afternoon and, really, into the unknown. "You ready?"
For most of the dozen games he played in 2010, plus two in the postseason, Roethlisberger, 28, answered his own question, helping to lead the Steelers to a 12-4 record, the AFC North title and their third Super Bowl appearance in six years. The numbers tell one story: Roethlisberger threw 17 touchdown passes and five interceptions and went 9-3 in those dozen regular-season games. His 58-yard strike to Antonio Brown set up the game-winning score in the playoff win against the Ravens, and his two clutch completions for first downs in the final minutes sealed the victory over the Jets in the AFC title game.
But the road has been arduous, so much so that any discussion of Roethlisberger's standing inevitably returns to the aberrant behavior that led to his suspension. In Pittsburgh, where restaurant windows and bedroom walls are covered in black and gold, forgiveness can't be bought with a bevy of touchdowns passes. The process of winning back a proud organization and its loyal fan base will continue long after Super Bowl XLV has been decided.
"He's just done everything we've asked," says Steelers president Art Rooney II. "He did some soul-searching, and I think he got back to the roots of how he was brought up. There will be doubters for a long time. He's certainly converted a lot of people back."
Those close to Roethlisberger (who declined SI's interview request) see a contrite man learning from mistakes played out on a public stage. To other observers he is the latest troubled athlete to parlay a winning streak into a kind of superficial redemption. At the Souper Bowl, a beige-brick eatery on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh, owner Dave Sypherd recognizes a rift within his own home. "I just feel like the women aren't forgiving him as all the guys are," Sypherd says. "I wear a Ben [jersey], and my wife always gives me a look." What does Sypherd's wife, Janice, say of Roethlisberger, even now? "That he's a pig," Dave says.
In Roethlisberger's hometown of Findlay, Ohio, feelings on the eve of the Super Bowl are split "about half and half," says the town's mayor, Pete Sehnert. "Some people feel that because of his status he got a little bit better break than some people would have in the same situation. But I think he got a wake-up call. From what you hear, he's not out doing the things he used to. I think he has changed."
Jane Hoeppner, whose late husband, Terry, recruited Roethlisberger out of high school and coached him at Miami (Ohio), has quietly watched the Steelers' season from her home in Bloomington, Ind. At various moments during Roethlisberger's tumultuous year she has picked up her cellphone and texted him: "I'm pulling for you" or "The best is yet to come."
"The natural thing is for people to throw up their hands," Hoeppner says. "I just couldn't do that. These situations that are challenging, we better make the best of them or they repeat themselves. I've pulled for him, and I've held Ben and his family in my prayers. I think he's a different person today, as he should be and as I would hope that he would be."
Roethlisberger's suspension barred him from the Steelers' facility and prohibited him from even talking football with his teammates. For those four weeks he was relegated to a high school field, where he and Whitfield worked three hours a day, four days a week. In one drill Whitfield would toss beanbags to various spots and Roethlisberger would sprint over to them. In another Whitfield would charge at Roethlisberger with a padded rake and swing at the quarterback, mimicking the pressure of a pass rush. They also worked on throwing mechanics, in particular tightening Roethlisberger's delivery so the ball would come out of his hand faster.
And then, their workouts over, they would return to the car -- and to society.
"Sports talk radio would be hammering him," Whitfield says, "but people would drive by and honk and wave. At a gas station a construction truck full of big-bellied, dirty-baseball-cap wearing guys comes by, and [the attitude] was, 'This is our guy.' I mean this in a loving sense. He belongs to Pittsburgh."
Whitfield says he marveled at Roethlisberger's patience with fans at the high school, at dinner or on the street, the line of cars with people waiting for autographs or the mothers thrusting their babies into Roethlisberger's face and blurting out, "My son is going to be a Steeler!" After the incident last spring, a portrait emerged of Roethlisberger as an athlete with an inflated sense of entitlement, one who could be aloof and abrupt. Whitfield saw none of that this fall. "He doesn't have the ability to do that [now]," Whitfield says. "That was stripped [by] his circumstance. Imagine if he did snap at somebody -- that goes back into the community, one person becomes 10 people becomes 100 people, and it's, 'Oh, Roethlisberger's a [jerk].'"
On the Wednesday before the Steelers departed for Super Bowl XLV, Roethlisberger stood in the middle of the locker room, surrounded by cameras and notepads. "I'm really happy," he told the assembled reporters. "You know, I get asked the question, If you win, what would it mean for you? Well, it would mean a lot for everything I've gone through, but honestly it means just as much if not more for me to win it for [veteran left tackle] Flozell [Adams], who's never had a chance to play in the Super Bowl."
He was asked how the experience of the last year had shaped him. "That's a reflective question, and now's not the time for me to reflect," Roethlisberger said. "Now's the time for me to focus on a really, really big game."
It was left to others to explain Roethlisberger's relationship with the Steelers. "He [apologized], more than once," says guard Trai Essex, one of Roethlisberger's closest friends on the team, recalling the quarterback's return. "I remember like it was yesterday. You could tell he was relieved to be around the fellas, and you could tell he was ready and anxious. You could see the sense of relief on his face."
Essex says Roethlisberger told his teammates he would return with a vengeance. The players, borrowing from the oft-used rap lyric, told him they would ride or die.
A football team, at its core, is a family, and those bonds are as strong as Manila hemp. "I love him like a brother," says Pittsburgh guard Chris Kemoeatu, and you believe him when he says it. The players sweat and bleed as a flock, their individual success impossible without shared sacrifice.
During pregame stretching on Super Bowl Sunday, Roethlisberger, as he does before every game, will give expression to this creed, slapping hands with defensive end Brett Keisel, hugging defensive tackle Casey Hampton, shadowboxing with James Harrison. Roethlisberger will then take the field with a chance to lead the Steelers to their seventh Super Bowl title.
Some will see privilege run amok, others the hard work of a changed man. And many more, numbed by the endless debate about athletic redemption, will just watch a football game.