Collier: City held its breath after Ben's smashup

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Not 200 yards from the emergency entrance to Mercy Hospital sits Ryan's Auto Glass, its frontage on Forbes Avenue displaying an array of helpful information.

"Most windshield repairs," one sign says, "take about 20 minutes."

Good to know, but how long does it take to repair a quarterback who hits a windshield, spider-webs it like a 240-pound brick, and then bounces off the pavement?

That was, essentially, the sickening question that flattened the city's quotidian rhythm into a grim daze just before noon yesterday and never really let up.

Al Bello, Getty Images for STM Sports
Ben Roethlisberger posed for this portrait on a Harley Davidson motorcycle last year in Pittsburgh.
Click photo for larger image.

Big Ben Roethlisberger, almost as though he were carrying out the inevitable cataclysm foreshadowed by amateur clairvoyants from Bill Cowher to Terry Bradshaw, plowed his motorcycle into a car on his way to the Steelers' offices, turning himself into a helmetless projectile at the mercy of auto glass, concrete, and providence.

And the words of the prophets are written in blood along Second Avenue.

That Big Ben was not killed was apparently not blessing enough for talk show callers, who seemed to express more outrage at his recklessness than concern for his health.

This is, for better or worse, a football town first, after all, and the starting quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers is effectively our most prominent citizen. No one identifies us to the nation like Big Ben and a fine youthful swashbuckling image it's been.

Mercy Hospital has been standing there on the Bluff for 159 years, churning out fateful shipments of hope and heartbreak pretty much independent of the fortunes of the local football team, but its convenience to yesterday's crash scene turned its atmosphere into an almost surreal cityscape.

It was 1:24, more than two hours after the accident, before any medical information was available, and then only in a few short sentences from Dr. Larry Jones, chief of Mercy's trauma and burn unit. Dr. Jones walked with Steelers spokesman Dave Lockett from the emergency entrance to the edge of the driveway, where a skittish media enclave had horseshoed itself around a manhole cover that looked to be serving as the doctor's spot.

"Mr. Roethlisberger is in serious, but stable condition," he said.

Had the manhole cover blown 100 feet in the air at the minute, it would not likely have affected anyone's concentration. "He'll be taken into surgery."

What little Dr. Jones said before being turned around by a hospital spokesperson added little to anyone's understanding of the exact seriousness of "serious but stable" and that was just enough uncertainty to inflame the day.

By 2:11, someone in an olive suit and dark tie was singing "Amazing Grace" on the lower sidewalk, and when back-up quarterback Charlie Batch left the front of the building around 2:30, there were more than enough people around to start an argument over what Batch should have said, instead of nothing.

"How's your mom?" one guy screamed as Batch got to his car.

Batch looked back and waved.

"Do you know him?" another man asked the screamer.

"Know him? He's one of my homeboys. I'm from Homestead. I raised him."

"Then why didn't he stop and talk to you?"

"I don't know."

Before 5 o'clock, someone in a white, hand-lettered T-shirt reading PRAY FOR BEN on the front had taken up a post adjacent to the rush-hour traffic. On the back, the shirt read, "Our lives are in his hands." Not exactly official NFL merchandise.

The uncomfortable aura along Marion Street had been thick with irony for hours, even before the unidentified man in the powder blue WINSLOW jersey walked out of the emergency doors. That jersey represents former San Diego Chargers great Kellen Winslow, whose son, a top draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2004, the same year the Steelers chose Roethlisberger with the 11th pick, had his career derailed by a motorcycle accident.

But the greater ironical juggling was playing out throughout a community that had tried not to worry itself sick in advance of almost exactly these particulars. A collision, a windshield, and Big Ben's blood on some unforgiving city street. He wasn't wearing a helmet.

Maybe some time today we'll dispense with the I-told-you-so's.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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