They travel deep into Milledgeville, the capital of Georgia during the Civil War—it was ransacked during Sherman's march—and ancestral home of the Southern writer Flannery O'Connor. One of her story collections is titled A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which might have served as the theme for Roethlisberger's night on the town.
They reach Lake Tahoe, Nev., where Roethlisberger's weeklong visit in 2008 for the American Century Celebrity Golf Tournament, spawned two civil lawsuits, one of which alleges that he sexually assaulted a hotel worker.
And they hit home—hard—in Findlay, Ohio, a well-groomed city of 40,000, where Roethlisberger's former high school coach, among others, is caught between the memory of a good-humored, well-behaved young athlete and the contemporary image of a loutish jock in the throes of narcissistic entitlement. "Ben's got to decide where he wants to go and who he wants to be," says Cliff Hite. The former Findlay High coach, now an Ohio state representative, thought for a second. "I put my money on him getting it right."
But the reach is deepest in Pittsburgh, where within a few days of the Milledgeville revelations Roethlisberger was dumped by both the Pittsburgh Zoo (which replaced a life-sized display of the quarterback with one of Penguins owner Mario Lemieux) and by PLB Sports, which halted production of Big Ben's Beef Jerky.
Over the course of several days in Pittsburgh, SI heard countless variations on the same theme: Roethlisberger throwing his weight around, asking those who got in his way, "Do you know who I am?" Even peripheral interview subjects would, with no solicitation, disparage the man once considered the flesh-and-blood symbol of a town built on raging rivers and hot metal.
Roethlisberger owns an off-season house in a gated community in Eatonton, Ga. Two days after his 28th birthday he traveled the 20 miles down U.S. 441 to Milledgeville—home to Georgia College & State University—with an entourage that included Steelers tackle Willie Colon and two off-duty police officers who work as his bodyguards: Ed Joyner, a Pennsylvania state trooper, and Anthony J. Barravecchio, an officer in Coraopolis, Pa. Both are frequent Roethlisberger companions. As the group barhopped through establishments with names such as The Brick and The Velvet Elvis, text messages began flying around Milledgeville: "Big Ben's in town!" One female GCSU student who was out that night told SI, "It's amazing what girls will do for a $107 million contract." (She's close: Roethlisberger's eight-year deal is worth $102 million.) A woman who didn't want to give her name said, "A lot of girls were throwing themselves at [Roethlisberger]."
Eventually the group landed at a club called Capital City, its fourth stop in town. There, in a curtained-off VIP area in the back, Roethlisberger bought shots for several women, some of whom reportedly admitted to Roethlisberger and Colon that they were not of legal drinking age. The 20-year-old GCSU student and others in her group of sorority sisters were wearing name tags of a sexual nature—the accuser's read dtf, short for Down to F---. Witnesses said the woman was visibly intoxicated at Capital City, and one told police that the accuser had been "obsessed" with Roethlisberger's arrival in town.
At around 1 a.m. Roethlisberger and the woman walked to a bathroom. The report filed by the Milledgeville police alleges that one of the bodyguards guided the woman toward the restroom by the shoulder; the bodyguards maintained to police that they had no knowledge of what happened between Roethlisberger and the woman. A source close to Roethlisberger said that he never intended to have intercourse and described his intentions as "Clinton sex," or fellatio. But the female student told police that they did have intercourse, and that the 6'5", 241-pound Roethlisberger used force.
Sgt. Jerry Blash, the Milledgeville police officer who wrote the criminal report, has resigned from the department in the midst of an investigation into comments he made to Barravecchio that night. According to Barravecchio, Blash described Roethlisberger's accuser as "this drunken bitch" and said, "This pisses me off, that women can do this." Sources say Blash—who had posed for photos with Roethlisberger and several other Milledgeville cops earlier in the evening—was dismissive about the sexual-assault claim when the accuser and her friends approached him that night. (As of last week a purple parking sign stood in the carport of Blash's house in Milledgeville reading, RESERVED PIMP PARKING. HO'S IN BACK.) Milledgeville police failed to secure the crime scene, and Roethlisberger was never interviewed in any formal fashion that night or in the ensuing days.
Earlier at Capital City, witnesses say, Roethlisberger had held aloft a tray of tequila drinks and shouted, "All my bitches, take some shots!" He preened, dispensed rounds, hit on various women and ignored others who hit on him, reveling in the Big Ben persona just nine months after he'd been forced to address another troubling incident.