Cook: A better version of Steelers Roethlisberger


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There's not much doubt about how Ben Roethlisberger will perform on Super Bowl Sunday. He almost always is at his best in the big games. He's one of the great clutch players in NFL history, 10-2 as a starting quarterback in the postseason with two championship rings. No one should be surprised if he leads the Steelers past the Green Bay Packers and is the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XLV.

The big question is how Roethlisberger will act after the confetti has stopped falling in Cowboys Stadium and the bright lights have been turned out. Win or lose the game, the Big Ben persona will be back, bigger and stronger than ever. From coast to coast -- OK, from Ambridge to Zelienople, at least -- people will be telling Roethlisberger how terrific he is. That's often been a curse for him, not a blessing. It created an ugly sense of entitlement in him. Actually, by his admission, it created something of a monster.

So will the new Big Ben be a kinder, gentler human being after this Super Bowl?

"Absolutely," Roethlisberger said, firmly. "I feel like I've grown up a lot."

This was during a quiet moment in the locker room after practice last week. Roethlisberger talked openly for the first time this season about the old Big Ben and the Big Ben he anticipates being in the weeks, months and years ahead.

"I don't know how to say this without it sounding really bad, but I used to tell my dad and my agent and my closest friends, 'If I can win a Super Bowl or two or three, nobody can say anything to me. I can do anything I want,' " Roethlisberger said. "That's just stupid. I know that now. That's what I mean about growing up. I realize now that I can use the platform I'll have for something good. If I can win a third Super Bowl with this team, can you imagine the possibilities? That's what I'm excited about."

Roethlisberger admitted he had doubts about being in this position again, in another Super Bowl, leading the Steelers to what he hopes is a third title in six seasons. He said it took losing nearly everything to find his "inner peace" at 28. You know the sorry story. Roethlisberger was accused -- but not charged -- in March of sexual assault by a 20-year-old college student in a college bar bathroom in Milledgeville, Ga. His reputation took a beating. He was suspended for the first four games of the season by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for conduct detrimental to the league.

It's a relatively short plane flight from Milledgeville to Dallas, but it must seem like a million miles to Roethlisberger.

"Did I think I might be done playing football? A slight chance," he said. "Did I think I might be done playing here? A slight chance. But I knew it was going to be up to me how I came out of all this. I was going to be the one who determined if I played football again. I never doubted myself. If I changed as a person and became a better person, I thought I'd get another chance. I would have played in the UFL or the Arena League if I had to."

It didn't come to that. The Rooneys stood behind the disgraced Roethlisberger even though their franchise's image also took a big hit. "I just believed that if he got back to being the type of person he really is deep down inside, he is still the type of person we want to be around," team president Art Rooney II said last week. "He hasn't disappointed us."

That trust wasn't lost on Roethlisberger.

"I felt horrible that [the Rooneys] were criticized because of me. That killed me. I know they didn't have to keep me. I've told them many times, 'You stood by me. I appreciate it. I'll always appreciate it.' I've said all along I want to be a Steeler my whole career. I want to retire as a Steeler. I want to go into the Hall of Fame one day as a Steeler ...

"But that's the family side of this organization. It all starts at the top. It's like when you do something wrong and your grandfather tells you, 'I'm so disappointed in you, but I still believe in you and I'm still here for you. I know you're better than this.' That's what families do. They don't give up on each other."

Roethlisberger said he wouldn't have made it back to another Super Bowl if his teammates also hadn't been there to pick him up after he fell. They always liked and respected him on the field. They knew he put a lot of money in their pockets and two championship rings on their fingers. But, off the field, he could be aloof even with them. Big Ben? No, sorry. Big Jerk.

Not anymore.

When the Steelers talk about their veteran leaders, they mention James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Hines Ward and Flozell Adams. They also mention Roethlisberger.

"I love playing with these guys," he said. "That's why I can break my foot and have my nose broken and plastered against my cheek and I'm still going to be out there with them. I don't want to miss a snap. I think maybe that's why I sometimes hold on to the ball too long and take a sack. I don't ever want to give up on a play for those guys."

Winning with and for his teammates and the Rooneys is powerful motivation, Roethlisberger said. But it might not be exactly as you think.

"It would be amazing to win another Super Bowl, but it won't be like I'll say, 'Do you forgive me now?' " Roethlisberger said. "It'll just be another step in earning back everything I lost."

The process has gone a little smoother because Roethlisberger had another fine season. He looked every bit the part of a $102 million franchise quarterback when he came back from his suspension. In the playoffs, he did what he does best -- find a way for the Steelers to win. He completed a 58-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown on third-and-19 to set up the winning touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens. He completed late passes to tight end Heath Miller and Brown to run out the clock against the New York Jets.

You might want to send a thank-you note to Ray Lewis.

Yes, that Ray Lewis.

One of the people Roethlisberger turned to for advice after the Milledgeville incident was the Ravens' great linebacker. Lewis knows something about rebuilding an image. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice in a double-murder case after Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. That was 11 years ago. Now, Lewis, who just finished his 15th NFL season, isn't just the face of the Baltimore franchise. He's doing national television commercials for a body-wash company.

"He just told me to stay focused on the task at hand," Roethlisberger said.

Here's how Lewis remembered their text exchange: "All you can do is move on. Don't let nobody pull you back into [Milledgeville]. Don't let nobody make you keep talking about it. Once it's done, it's done."

Roethlisberger is expected to follow that advice when he meets the national media this week. He's expected to answer football-related questions and deflect all others. "I'm just going to take it in stride and see what happens."

The scrutiny won't stop for Roethlisberger after the Super Bowl, of course. It's been on him since the Milledgeville incident. It will be on him the rest of his career.

"That's OK. I welcome that," Roethlisberger said. "I want people to see the person I am. I want to earn their trust back. I want kids to wear my jersey. I want to be a role model. I hear guys say they don't care about that stuff, but I do. I want people to like me."

Maybe you're thinking what I'm thinking.

The new Big Ben is off to a pretty good start.


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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