The family—including Art II's father, Dan, the current U.S. ambassador to Ireland; and Art II's son, team vice president Art Jr.—understand that keeping Roethlisberger is a large gamble and that their quarterback is one more slipup away from turning the Steelers into a Keystone State version of the Raiders. But after jettisoning another problem player, wide receiver Santonio Holmes (who was dealt to the Jets in April for a fifth-round pick after he was found to have violated the league's substance-abuse policy) they are laying their chips on number 7.
"When I met with Ben, he said he's going to be changing his life," Art II told SI's Peter King in mid-April. "Words are the easy part. We have to make sure Ben puts himself on a path to do better. It's a tall order, but it's something he has to do."
In Pittsburgh, perhaps more than anywhere else in our languid nation," wrote hometowner Michael Chabon in his coming-of-age novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, "a barmaid does not care."
Barmaids, and most everyone else, care less about Roethlisberger now that the city has a full-blown hero in Sidney Crosby, the peerless NHL center whose Penguins are defending their Stanley Cup in a series against the Canadiens. Sid the Kid has proved to be the anti-Roethlisberger, not so much in playing style—they are both hard-edged warriors—but in the ability to be a major star with a minor ego.
Cynics will no doubt assume that Roethlisberger can reclaim the city, possibly with a few touchdown passes, perhaps with a strong playoff game, probably with an AFC championship and certainly with a third Lombardi Trophy. Sports fans are too fickle, too in the moment, for us not to believe that success wouldn't have them climbing back on the Big Ben bus.
But make no mistake, this schism between superstar and town is a serious one. At Peppi's Old Tyme Sandwich Shop, owner Lou Bosser said he's still selling the #7, a.k.a. Peppi's Rookie of the Year, a.k.a. the RoethlisBerger, a sausage and ground beef stomach-churner topped with egg and American cheese, for $7.26. But now customers offer a side order of editorializing. "You get the bad comments," says Bosser, "like you got to eat it in the bathroom."
And store owners are experiencing a Roethlisberger market downturn, with the exception of the dumb and dumber shirts depicting Tiger Woods and Big Ben. At Yinzers in the Strip District, 50-year-old owner Jim Coen has moved his bin of Roethlisberger jerseys to a storeroom in the back. "That's thousands of dollars worth of merchandise right there," Coen says. He points to the little girls' pink number 7 shirts emblazoned with Roethlisberger's name. Says Coen, "Would you buy your daughter this jersey?"
Despite his financial losses, though, Coen is sympathetic. "We look at Ben like a little brother who's a drug addict," he says. "You love him, you want him, you need him, but he's on thin ice. Our football team is our life."
You don't have to tell that to fans like Vergerio, whose life is painted all over his upper body. But in this ugly tale of a player and a town, the pain cuts much deeper than skin, all the way down to bone.
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