As he drove toward Saint Vincent College Friday in a MINI Cooper, Ben Roethlisberger suddenly felt frightened. It wasn't the car, it wasn't the specter of the media horde awaiting him on campus, and it wasn't the impending arrival of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell next week.
The Steelers quarterback suddenly worried about the reaction fans would have toward him this afternoon when he takes the field for a public practice for the first time since a woman accused him of sexual assault in March.
"Driving up here today I was talking to my dad, and for the first time it hit me about what is about to happen and -- who knows? I got scared. I really did," Mr. Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during a 25-minute interview Friday afternoon in a campus dorm room.
Will it be cheers or jeers?
"I don't know what is going to happen. I am sure I will get a little bit of both. I hope it is mostly good. I guess that is what makes you human, if you are scared, and that is what my dad told me."
Mr. Roethlisberger, giving his first lengthy print interview since Mr. Goodell doled out a four- to six-game suspension for his antics in March, said he would try to follow the advice his father gave him on the cell phone Friday.
"He said it is OK to be scared and afraid of those things, and to just be yourself and be human; and that is what hit me coming up here. I don't know what is going to happen, and I am scared."
He said he would have the same anxious moments before his next game at Heinz Field Aug. 14.
"I am hoping and praying that I get a warm reception. I hope people want to give me another chance and that they will give me that chance to prove to them ... It would tear me apart if [booing] happened at home. On the road we are used to it anyway. I can block that out; but it touches my heart because I love Pittsburgh. I'm a 'yinzer.' I don't say it, but I am a yinzer. I feel like they are home to me, they are family. So I feel like I let my family down through all of this, so that is why I hope family forgives."
Mr. Roethlisberger repeated many times during Friday's interview his hope that fans will give him a second chance, that they will judge him by his deeds from now on rather than what reportedly went on in Milledgeville, Ga., in the early hours of March 5.
"I have made a lot of mistakes. I know that, and I will be the first to admit it. I have asked for forgiveness. I know that I have probably hurt people, and I am so sorry to anyone I have ever hurt. But I am just hoping people can forgive me and give me another chance. I'm not asking for it to be an overnight miracle. I know no one is going to read this article or see an interview and say, 'I forgive him.' But give me a chance, that is all I ask for."
While he has promised to change, to become again the person he says he was years earlier, he bemoaned the fact he could not tell his side of the story from the incident in Georgia.
The 20-year-old college student and her friends claimed Mr. Roethlisberger sexually assaulted the woman in a nightclub bathroom. The woman, though, could not recall details and later asked prosecutors not to charge Mr. Roethlisberger. After a lengthy investigation, Georgia authorities said they would not pursue charges. However, Mr. Goodell, citing a "pattern of behavior and bad judgments" by Mr. Roethlisberger, suspended him for the first six games of the season, which could be reduced to four if the quarterback follows a path the commissioner set for him.
Mr. Roethlisberger said he felt lowest about two weeks after the incident when he read and heard the charges being made against him by the woman and her friends but could not respond because of advice from his lawyers.
"I want to tell the truth, I wanted to tell my side and let everyone know what really happened," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "Because all you ever heard was her side of the story, and it was so out there, I mean ridiculously out there. People who know the truth were like, just shaking their head. I mean it was so ridiculous."
He also labeled the sexual assault accusations in a civil suit filed by a Nevada woman the year before as "ridiculous."
His lawyers advised him that if he "lashed out" at the accuser in Georgia, authorities might just take it to trial. But Mr. Roethlisberger realized he has lost a lot more.
He has lost money, endorsements, reputation and fans.
"To me, it's more about losing fans. That's what hurt the most."
What also hurts is reading what he says are exaggerated stories quoting people who accused him of walking out on restaurant and bar tabs, refusing to pay cover charges and tipping poorly, if at all.
"When some of those stories came out they were hurtful because some of them were blatantly made up, and that is just unfortunate," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "I would never want to rob the average Pittsburgh person and walk out on a bar tab or a food tab or not leave a tip. I think if you ask people [who] know, I am a pretty good tipper.
"I think people assume that just because I get up and leave a table without actually seeing me pay the bill, they think I just got up and walked out. I have great friends, though, [who] aren't afraid to pay the bill for me. But that is the unfortunate part, that a bystander over there could overlook something. But if they say that, I'm sorry. I've never been that way, and I hope they can forgive me."
Forgiveness is what Mr. Roethlisberger seeks, and he promised he'd give people reason to forgive. He said he'd followed Mr. Goodell's orders "to just stay out of trouble and do whatever you can to keep your name out of the paper, good or bad."
"I've always done a lot of things for the community, but I have just never been one to tell people about it because I don't think that is why you do it," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "So I kept doing things like that. Went to the Salvation Army, Ronald McDonald House to serve dinner and went to the Caring House to talk to families who have lost family members. ...
"I'm just trying to be smart with everything I am doing. I try not to even put myself in a situation that could be questionable. You still have to live your life. You can't stop living, so I still go to a restaurant but I don't go as often as I would. I haven't gone out. I have had the O-linemen up to my house and we have grilled out a few times. I have had other teammates and rookies up, so things like that. But I mostly just hang out with my family and friends."
He made the news once since the end of spring practices June 10, when a woman who lived along an Ohio golf course accused him of urinating next to a tree. Others said it was not Mr. Roethlisberger, but someone else in his foursome. Police did not pursue it.
It was another instance, however, that showed Mr. Roethlisberger how much his behavior is under the spotlight.
"That wasn't even me; that's the unfortunate part. You think you do everything right, and even if you are with somebody and they do something wrong or whatever, regardless, they see your name, and they think it is you. It's tough. I have been under a microscope, and that is just the way I have been living the last few months."
Mr. Roethlisberger acknowledges he got full of himself as he experienced the successes through the years, and he has apologized to people for that, including to some members of the news media.
"People make you this idol or figure, and you start to believe it, and that is a shame because that is not who I am or who I was raised to be," he said. "I am embarrassed to even for a second think that that was who I really was. On the field, that is one thing. You have to be that way. On the field you want to be the best [who] has ever played the game. But off the field you have to be a different person."
He said he had no idea what it's going to be like going through training camp and the preseason and then sitting out at least the first month of the regular season.
"Never, ever, never in a million years did I think I would have to miss a game for anything, even injuries. But to do something that the commissioner feels like he needed to discipline me over, I never thought the day would happen, and it is very painful for me to not be out there with my guys. ... It is going to be so hard, and it is going to drive me to be the best that I have ever been. I have already been doing that this off-season. I am in the best shape that I have ever been in, and I know that I have four more weeks, five more weeks, who knows how long, but I am going to keep training and do whatever I can."
His apprehension over the reaction from fans today turned to a wish of what the next 10 years will be like for him. He said he would like the years to turn out the way they have for another athlete accused but not convicted of sexual assault.
"Like Kobe Bryant," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "He is now the most popular athlete in the world."
But there is more to the wish.
"Win championships, get married and start a family here in Pittsburgh. Hopefully, I will never leave here. So I am hoping, maybe in 10 years, I will be playing, God willing ... But just to be here, and [have] people forget all about [the old Ben] and say, 'He was one of the nicest guys, he was just a great guy.' "
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published July 31, 2010 4:00 AM