On the first Tuesday of September, George Whitfield Jr. pulled his car onto the property in Hampton Township, Pa., belonging to Ben Roethlisberger, the excommunicated Steelers quarterback who was beginning a monthlong stint during which he was forbidden contact with his team. A quarterback guru from Southern California, Whitfield was armed with all of the accoutrements for his stay in Pittsburgh—clothes, footballs, whiteboards, markers, easels, video equipment—but none of it could fully prepare him for the circumstances. Six months earlier Roethlisberger had been accused of sexual assault for the second time in a year, and the city of Pittsburgh was still reeling in the aftermath. While Roethlisberger was not charged in either instance, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for the first six games of the season for violating the league's personal-conduct policy (a punishment Goodell later reduced to four), and Roethlisberger's status as a local hero had been compromised. Rasmussen Reports, a media company more often linked to politics than pro sports, conducted a telephone poll of Pennsylvanians in the spring and found that only 24% viewed Roethlisberger favorably.
Once inside the house Whitfield found Roethlisberger gathering his equipment for their workout—a Steelers helmet, shoulder pads—but both men were distracted by the chatter coming from the television. The hosts on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption were discussing his teammates' decision not to vote Roethlisberger a captain, for the first time in three years.
"It was weird," Whitfield remembers. "I now had this perspective on what it must be like to be famous and revered and, to some extent, polarizing."
Whitfield recalls watching Roethlisberger as the quarterback's life was being parsed on the airwaves. Roethlisberger listened to the commentary, then shrugged. "I put myself in this situation," he told Whitfield, before heading out into the late afternoon and, really, into the unknown. "You ready?"
For most of the dozen games he played in 2010, plus two in the postseason, Roethlisberger, 28, answered his own question, helping to lead the Steelers to a 12--4 record, the AFC North title and their third Super Bowl appearance in six years. The numbers tell one story: Roethlisberger threw 17 touchdown passes and five interceptions and went 9--3 in those dozen regular-season games. His 58-yard strike to Antonio Brown set up the game-winning score in the playoff win against the Ravens, and his two clutch completions for first downs in the final minutes sealed the victory over the Jets in the AFC title game.
But the road has been arduous, so much so that any discussion of Roethlisberger's standing inevitably returns to the aberrant behavior that led to his suspension. In Pittsburgh, where restaurant windows and bedroom walls are covered in black and gold, forgiveness can't be bought with a bevy of touchdowns passes. The process of winning back a proud organization and its loyal fan base will continue long after Super Bowl XLV has been decided.
"He's just done everything we've asked," says Steelers president Art Rooney II. "He did some soul-searching, and I think he got back to the roots of how he was brought up. There will be doubters for a long time. He's certainly converted a lot of people back."
Those close to Roethlisberger (who declined SI's interview request) see a contrite man learning from mistakes played out on a public stage. To other observers he is the latest troubled athlete to parlay a winning streak into a kind of superficial redemption. At the Souper Bowl, a beige-brick eatery on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh, owner Dave Sypherd recognizes a rift within his own home. "I just feel like the women aren't forgiving him as all the guys are," Sypherd says. "I wear a Ben [jersey], and my wife always gives me a look." What does Sypherd's wife, Janice, say of Roethlisberger, even now? "That he's a pig," Dave says.
In Roethlisberger's hometown of Findlay, Ohio, feelings on the eve of the Super Bowl are split "about half and half," says the town's mayor, Pete Sehnert. "Some people feel that because of his status he got a little bit better break than some people would have in the same situation. But I think he got a wake-up call. From what you hear, he's not out doing the things he used to. I think he has changed."
Jane Hoeppner, whose late husband, Terry, recruited Roethlisberger out of high school and coached him at Miami (Ohio), has quietly watched the Steelers' season from her home in Bloomington, Ind. At various moments during Roethlisberger's tumultuous year she has picked up her cellphone and texted him: "I'm pulling for you" or "The best is yet to come."