Ron Cook: A new Roethlisberger emerges

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On Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger did what he does best as an elite NFL quarterback, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another, leading the Steelers to an unlikely, season-sustaining win against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. But on this Thursday night, he is at his North Hills home, doing some nice work as a father, changing a dirty diaper. Wife Ashley is off to the Penguins-Minnesota Wild game, the highlight of a girls night out. Roethlisberger is alone with Ben Jr., who turned 1 Nov. 21. The two are having a blast. Roethlisberger does the diaper thing with the same precision he threw the touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes to win Super Bowl XLIII.

"I love being a father," Roethlisberger said. "I love the responsibility. I love the patience it teaches you."

It makes for a wonderful holiday picture, Roethlisberger, such a big man, holding that baby boy in his arms. Soon, there will be another face in the family team photo. The Roethlisbergers are expecting a girl in March.

Players talk about regular season finale against Browns

Ben Roethlisberger and Jarvis Jones talk about the final game of the regular season against the Browns. (Video by Lake Fong; 12/24/2013)

"I like the path I'm on," Roethlisberger said, "and I like who I'm on it with."

You think the Steelers might be on the verge of an amazing comeback, from an 0-4 start this season to a spot in the playoffs? The team has nothing on Roethlisberger, who has climbed out of a much deeper, darker hole. Wasn't it just yesterday that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for conduct detrimental to the league? Now, Roethlisberger is a finalist -- one of 32 -- for the NFL's most prestigious annual honor, the Walter Payton Award. He is the Steelers' nominee, not just because he's having, arguably, the best season of his career, but because of his community service. The award celebrates what really is important. Former Steelers Franco Harris, Joe Greene, Lynn Swann and Jerome Bettis won it, as did former Pitt and Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. The Payton Award will be presented at Super Bowl XLVIII Feb. 2 in New Jersey.

"It's amazing the good things that happen to you when you grow up a little," Roethlisberger said.

He was accused of sexual assault in March 2010 in Milledgeville, Ga. Although he never was charged, his reputation took a brutal beating. He was suspended by Goodell for the first four games of the 2010 season. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated under the headline, "The Hangover: Bad Behavior, Bad Judgment." The story wasn't flattering and was even more jarring because, in the same issue, there was a piece about how Penguins star Sidney Crosby had developed into a terrific NHL captain at 22.

"I knew who I was and how I was raised," Roethlisberger said. "I also knew who I wasn't, if that makes any sense. I knew I could get to where I am today because I knew the type of person I wanted to be."

Roethlisberger called it a "challenging journey," not just saving his football career but also winning back the respect of his bosses, teammates and fans. It didn't happen overnight. He learned about patience long before Ben Jr. came along. But Roethlisberger kept working at it, one day at a time. It began with treating people better. There was his marriage to Ashley Harlan, a New Castle girl, in July 2011. There was the start of his family with the birth of Ben Jr.

But it was more than all that. Roethlisberger realized, finally, that his position as Steelers quarterback could fuel so much more than just his own sense of entitlement. He could use his platform to do such good for others.

Suddenly, the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation had a new, vital meaning.

Roethlisberger long has loved dogs. When Spike, a police dog in his hometown of Findlay, Ohio, was shot and killed in 2005, he took it personally. When Roethlisberger's father, Ken, suggested his son pay to replace the animal -- "Not just a dog, but a member of the police force!" Roethlisberger growled -- he jumped at the opportunity. That led to the purchase and training of dogs for police forces and fire departments in each city where the Steelers play, as well as in the Pittsburgh area. Roethlisberger's foundation has given out more than $1 million in grants for the dogs.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation also is important to Roethlisberger. He looks forward to the Friday visits to the Steelers' South Side headquarters, always amazed that meeting him and his teammates and watching a practice and a game can mean so much to people who are fighting such a tough battle just to survive. In the past two years, his foundation has donated more than $50,000 to Make-A-Wish.

"Don't get me wrong. The Payton Award is an awesome honor," Roethlisberger said. "But I don't need trophies or plaques or my name in the paper to feel good about it. For me, the gratification comes from the hugs from the kids, the smiles, the letters ...

"I was in Kiawah Island when an officer came up to me to thank me for getting a dog for his force. He practically hugged me. He was almost in tears. I realized then how important this stuff can be. That's what's important to me."

Roethlisberger grinned when the officer told him he was from Baltimore, of all places.

Imagine that.

But this is about something so much bigger than just a fierce football rivalry between mirror-image cities, is it not?

"I guess this honor means so much more to me because a lot of people on our team do so much," Roethlisberger said. "So many of my teammates could have won it and probably should have won it. We have a great group here. I learned from Jerome [Bettis] and [Alan] Faneca. They are two of the best when it comes to doing charity stuff. Now, I'm trying to show the young guys how important it is. You'll hear a guy say, 'Ah, I didn't want to ask you do to something because I didn't want to bother you.' But it's never a bother. This is what we all love doing. It's what we all should be doing. That's why I try to go to as many events as I can. If I can possibly be there, I will be there."

Roethlisberger said he hopes his foundation continues to grow and thrive in Pittsburgh for many years.

"That's why when all that trade stuff started earlier this season, I made it clear I don't want to go anywhere. This is my home. I want to make a difference here."

On the field, sure. "I don't know how long I have left as a player or if I'll be injured, but I like to think I have at least five good years still in me," Roethlisberger said. "I definitely think we can win another Super Bowl or two. I like where this offense is right now. I like where my relationship is with coach [Todd] Haley. It's become a really good relationship. The last thing I want is for anything to change."

But making a difference off the field also is important to Roethlisberger. "I still feel like I have so much more to do. I know I'm not going to please everybody or change everybody's opinion of me and make them start liking me. That's OK. You can't get caught up in worrying about that. I worry about the people who do like me or love me and care about me. I'm putting all my energy into being the best person, best husband and best father I can be."

It's time for Ben Jr. to go to bed. Roethlisberger politely excuses them. The two are nuzzling as he closes the front door to his home.

At that moment, something is clear, something very good, something befitting of this Christmas morning.

Roethlisberger has come a long way.

People really can change.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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