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"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.