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"I'm hoping some of this will make Ben look at himself and say, 'I've got to change,'" Roethlisberger's friend says. "I hope he'll think, I don't want to be known as not a nice person."
In Findlay, Roethlisberger is remembered as a nice person, and since hitting it big he has been generous to the local police and fire departments and youth football programs. "You take a walk downtown," says Brad Bosse, a 52-year-old middle school track coach who lived two doors down from the Roethlisberger family for 12 years, "and start talking about Ben, 99 percent of the time you're gonna get a good reaction."
But there are reminders that all is not as it once was. Cathy Linhart, who owns the House of Awards and Shoes on Main Street and sold more than 100 Roethlisberger bobbleheads after he was drafted by the Steelers, watched his paraphernalia go untouched at a garage sale last month. While acknowledging that not all the rumors about him have been proved, Linhart (who used to sell sports gear to a young Roethlisberger) is nevertheless disappointed. "Where's his ethics? His morals? What happened to him?" she says. "Grow up, you know what I mean?"
In Milledgeville, meanwhile, the citizens simply wish Big Ben and his posse had never come to town. Even more, they wish the media had never shown up in Roethlisberger's wake. Many have fought to preserve Milledgeville's legacy as something other than the Place Where Roethlisberger Was Accused. They include Ben Loper, co-owner of the Pig in a Pit restaurant, who, angered by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story that he believes painted the townspeople as hicks, made T-shirts reading KEEP IT CLASSY MILLEDGEVILLE. Others offer their opinions of Roethlisberger, such as 57-year-old Danny Snow, who last Saturday sat at the pool hall down the street from a marathon Bible reading at the Old Baldwin County Courthouse. "They should also make him go to church every Sunday," Snow said. "How else is he going to change? Otherwise, the only thing he'll be changing are nightclubs."
The most enduring hangover, however, is in Pittsburgh, a city with a soft spot for its sports teams but a hard crust, too, a city with a finite tolerance for misbehavior.
At a minicamp last Friday, Roethlisberger's teammates mostly expressed support for their quarterback. But even Colon, who was there that night in Georgia, let it be known that Roethlisberger should learn from the experience. "The fans have a right to be upset," he said. "They buy tickets to support us. Remember that Ben is a human being, and human beings make mistakes. Hopefully he learns from his and moves on."
Veteran receiver Hines Ward, who during his six seasons as one of Roethlisberger's favorite targets has never had a close relationship with the quarterback, called the suspension "justified" and added, "When you're in the quarterback position, everybody looks to you and there are certain situations you can't put yourself in. By Ben going through this, he'll come back a different person."
It's difficult to gauge how much goodwill Roethlisberger has stockpiled with his teammates. He was dressed down by linebacker Joey Porter during the 2006 season for being aloof and not working hard enough. But Roethlisberger performed with guts and honor in the Super Bowl XLIII victory, and that goes a long way in a league with few elite signal-callers.
Would the Steelers really have considered getting rid of Roethlisberger? Multiple media reports asserted that the team made calls before last month's draft (specifically to the Raiders and the Rams) to inquire about a trade. It's just as likely, however, that Steelers president Art Rooney II, the man guiding the franchise, never intended to deal Roethlisberger. But he must have spent a few sleepless nights weighing his decision, for keeping Roethlisberger after two major incidents and several minor ones goes against the family legacy, the implicit pledge to fill the roster with solid citizens.
Franchise patriarch Art Rooney, known as Chief to most of the old Steelers, used to walk around the locker room whispering sage advice. "Chief constantly drove home the point that we were representing something larger than ourselves, that we had to conduct ourselves in the proper way," says Andy Russell, a Steelers linebacker for 12 seasons through the mid-1970s. "Even back when we were playing, there were ways of getting in trouble in bars. Guys wanted to fight you. Women wanted to go home with you. You just had to walk away. That was what you were taught by the Rooneys."