Early returns cheer Roethlisberger

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It is a question for these bizarre times.

What is it like to walk in Ben Roethlisberger's shoes?

Well, two Steelers fans have that answer this morning. Big Ben gave 'em to them right off his sweaty feet after signing them after the afternoon practice at training camp Saturday.

Earlier, Roethlisberger posed for a picture with a baby girl and reached his long, magical right arm over the surging autograph crowd at Saint Vincent College to sign a T-shirt for a little girl on her dad's shoulders and a football for a little guy on his dad's.

Do you think maybe Roethlisberger tried a little too hard to win back all of his fans on the first full day of the new season?

Hey, I'm not knocking the man for it. Better that he try too hard than not try hard enough after the offseason rape allegations against him and the subsequent conditional six-game suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that have made this camp unlike any in franchise history.

At least Roethlisberger didn't kiss the baby the way you see the ridiculous politicians do when they are running for office.

Roethlisberger told the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette Friday that he was "scared" about the fan reaction he might receive at Saturday's afternoon practice, the first open to Steelers Nation. Perhaps during his ride to camp up Route 30 he had seen the sign outside of a Latrobe business that was directed at him and Steelers president Art Rooney II, who made the decision not to trade or release Roethlisberger after his deplorable escapades in March in Milledgeville, Ga.

WELCOME BACK ALMOST ALL YUNZ STILLERS

As it turned out, though, Roethlisberger's fears made for a lot of wasted emotion.

His day started well when many of his teammates read Bouchette's Post-Gazette story and told him, "We've got your back no matter what." A bit surprisingly, wide receiver Hines Ward was at the front of the line for that. He and Roethlisberger have had an uneasy relationship over the years even as they have helped each other take big steps toward the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Ward asked Roethlisberger if he could leave the locker room with him to make the walk to the practice fields through the fans, who were at least three- or four-deep behind a snow fence.

"If he was going to get booed, I was going to take the boos right along with him," Ward said.

There was none of that.

The Nation welcomed Roethlisberger with open arms from the time he emerged and high-fived his way to the field to the time he left in a golf cart after signing nearly everything imaginable for nearly everyone for 25 minutes. Even as the cart started to head away, he fielded a couple of bouncing footballs from the crowd, autographed them and threw them back.

Did I mention the fans -- young fans, older fans, female fans, male fans -- surged to get close to Roethlisberger?

The snow fence in front of the bleachers at Chuck Noll Field where he started to sign was pushed down and nearly destroyed.

"I think it went well," Roethlisberger said. "The fans were warm and loving. That's how I knew they would be -- or hoped they would be."

There even was a topper to Big Ben's day.

"I think I completed every pass."

Don't underestimate the significance there.

Winning back the fans at training camp was easy for Roethlisberger. Every summer, they prove how loyal they are to the Steelers and their players -- all of their players -- by fighting the traffic to get to Latrobe and watch practice, not so much because they love football, but because they want to be close to their team's heroes.

Roethlisberger knows he has plenty of haters out there who won't be so easily convinced that he is a changed man, a better person. He also knows everyone -- supporters, haters and those who aren't quite sure what to make of a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback who has found so much trouble off the field -- will be watching, waiting for him to screw up again.

"All he can do now is play," Ward said.

I'm guessing a few four-touchdown pass games and some big Steelers wins will lead to a lot more cheers for Roethlisberger.

Funny how that sort of thing works.

"Everybody is going to have their opinions about him. I have my opinions," Ward said. "He made a mistake. We all make mistakes.

"Are we going to crucify him for life?"

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

That, too, is a question for these strange times.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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