Ron Vergerio, a Pittsburgh-area bus driver and commercial driver's license inspector, has devoted a significant portion of his epidermis to his beloved Steelers. The artists at American Tattoo, a parlor in the Pittsburgh suburb of Verona, have spent more than 200 hours crafting Steelers-themed tats on Vergerio's back, chest and arms. One of the most striking images is that of Ben Roethlisberger standing tall, looking downfield, poised to throw—a quarterback's quarterback.
Vergerio wears that one on his left biceps. Now even this most extreme of Steelers fans wonders if he should get a red line inked through it.
"From a football point of view I'm sure losing [Roethlisberger] would've hurt," said Vergerio last week, relaxing at American Tattoo in the Number 4 jersey of Byron Leftwich, a candidate to start the 2010 season in place of the suspended Roethlisberger. "But it's to the point where he's embarrassing the franchise."
Such a pronouncement does not come easily from a man who, if pricked, might literally bleed black-and-gold. But Vergerio is not alone. Throughout Pittsburgh there is strong sentiment that the Steelers should have parted ways with Roethlisberger, their two-time Super Bowl--winning quarterback, for behavior—ranging from civic boorishness to borderline criminality—that has deeply damaged a connection between the community and the family-run organization that has been built over 77 years.
Roethlisberger, 28, was accused of assaulting a 20-year-old female college student in the restroom of a bar in Milledgeville, Ga., in the early hours of March 5, the second sexual-assault accusation leveled at the quarterback in nine months. Ultimately no criminal charges were filed—Fred Bright, the district attorney in Georgia's Ocmulgee Circuit, ruled there was insufficient DNA evidence even as he admonished Roethlisberger to "grow up"—but Roethlisberger nevertheless was suspended for six games (with a possible reduction to four) by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for violating the league's personal-conduct policy. At least one person close to Roethlisberger, his agent, Ryan Tollner, says that recent events have served as a wakeup call for his client. (Roethlisberger, who has been undergoing league-mandated behavioral evaluation, declined SI's request for an interview.) "What you're going to see is a guy who's been humbled by the process and ready to reemerge as a better person," Tollner told SI. "He admitted to me that maybe he got too caught up in the Big Ben persona. Maybe he kind of ran with that too much. But at heart he's a good person who doesn't want to be remembered as the kind of guy who's being presented to the public right now."
As well as Roethlisberger has played—and there's no disputing he's one of the league's elite quarterbacks—his off-the-field reputation has spiraled downward since a horrific motorcycle accident in June 2006, five months after he became the youngest QB to lead a team to the title. Roethlisberger was riding his black 2005 Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle, helmetless and without a permit, in downtown Pittsburgh when he collided with a Chrysler New Yorker. Roethlisberger hit the windshield, rolled over the roof of the car and struck the ground headfirst. He suffered a broken jaw and nose and underwent seven hours of surgery. "If I ever ride again," he said afterward, "it certainly will be with a helmet."
A few months after the accident, a reporter and a cameraman for KDKA-TV, the CBS affiliate that broadcasts Steelers games, were driving on I-376 in Pittsburgh when they saw two men on motorcycles and recognized one as Roethlisberger, who was not wearing a helmet. They began shooting footage, which showed Roethlisberger giving them the finger as he sped away, but the video never aired. The station's news director at the time, John Verrilli, and its current assistant news director, Anne Linaberger, deny that any such tape existed, but several people who saw the video gave SI similar accounts of the tape; sources believe the story was killed out of fear that it would damage KDKA's relationship with the Steelers. "If we had been the other affiliate [which doesn't broadcast the games]," says one of the people who saw the tape, "it would have been A-1 news." (A neighbor who lives near Roethlisberger in a tony section of Gibsonia, Pa., but did not want to be named has also seen the quarterback on his motorcycle. "I've never seen him with a helmet," the neighbor said.)
It wouldn't be the first time a media outlet has protected a star athlete, and it speaks to what the Steelers—and Roethlisberger—have meant to Pittsburgh. But the feeling is not the same now. In a city where fans once held aloft signs that read big ben a godsend, the outrage is palpable. When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette polled its online readers in mid-April about what the Steelers should do with their quarterback, 39% of the more than 38,000 respondents said he should be suspended without pay, and the paper's website was deluged with heartfelt e-mails urging the team to dump him.
The tentacles of the Roethlisberger story extend beyond the City of Bridges. They reach the Park Avenue office of Goodell, who, in suspending a player not charged with a crime, considered what he told SI last week was "a pattern that was developing with Ben."
They extend to a corporate complex in Beaverton, Ore., where Nike, as it did with Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods, announced that it was standing behind its spokesman.