Dismayed fans ask: Why no helmet, Ben?

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Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh police load Ben Roethlisberger's damaged motorcycle onto a tow vehicle after his accident yesterday on Second Avenue.
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The accident involved a broken windshield, broken bones and for many, a sense of broken trust.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, riding helmetless near the Armstrong Tunnel on his black and almost entirely unmarked motorcycle, crashed into a car yesterday morning and was taken from a bloody scene that doubled as the epicenter for unsettling questions.

Concerned fans across the region wondered about the off-field judgment of the Steelers quarterback who months earlier united them with his on-field ability. Several times within the last year, Mr. Roethlisberger had publicly defended his right to ride his motorcycle without a helmet. Then, at 11:10 a.m. yesterday, talk of a worst-case scenario reinforced talk of the risk.

"He affects a lot more people if he gets in an accident than if you or I get in an accident," said Dan Behanna, 36, sitting yesterday at The Locker Room, a South Side bar co-owned by Hines Ward.

A companion sitting next to Mr. Behanna, Rory Bernhard, 23, had driven to the bar on his motorcycle -- a Suzuki GSX-R600. The vehicle approximated Mr. Roethlisberger's -- contoured, and supercharged. When not wearing a helmet, Mr. Bernhard said, danger escalates; even the noise of the motorcycle's engine presents a hazard, because it dims the awareness of surrounding vehicles.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
John Barr

Personally, I'd wear a helmet

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"There should be no sympathy for him," said Mr. Bernhard, who wears a helmet. "He had a choice. Not that he deserves it, but that's what happens. It's like if you're a kid and you stick your finger in a socket. Lesson learned."

Mr. Roethlisberger lay last night in Mercy Hospital, in serious but stable condition, but the events provided a reminder of the quarterback's fallibility. In late January, before Mr. Roethlisberger won his first Super Bowl, an employee at Jack's Bar in the South Side decorated the front of the building with a string of giant stickers, reading: "IN BEN WE TRUST."

As news of the accident traveled from police scanners to television stations to office cubicles, some of that trust had eroded. Pittsburgh buzzed with both angst and dismay. The Steelers' most visible player, many fans said, owed it to himself -- and the legions of those who follow him -- to protect himself.

Some of the area's most ardent sports fans had already planned on a day of news-following. The U.S. soccer team played its first World Cup match yesterday afternoon against the Czech Republic. But even in Piper's Pub, a haven for soccerdom, talk about the other kind of football soon infiltrated. Though the bar kept its televisions on the soccer game -- ignoring a platter of live local news coverage -- fans learned through whispers and cell phone conversations.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Kara Laux

Fans are depending on him to be more responsible

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"Everybody started talking about this, not soccer," said Kara Laux. "Everybody was on the phone, like, 'Oh my gosh.' Everybody was basically shocked."

Mr. Roethlisberger had established himself in just two professional seasons as a reliable decision-maker, clutch in the playoffs and precise under pressure. Fans griped only about one thing -- his unwillingness to wear a helmet while on his bike, a legal stance since Pennsylvania repealed its mandatory helmet law in 2003. That choice sparked a debate 13 months ago when Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow injured his knee in a motorcycle accident.

As Kevin Woodward and Roberto Ranallo -- both employees at Deloitte & Touche -- left their Downtown office yesterday evening, they muttered Mr. Winslow's name, wondering how Mr. Roethlisberger couldn't have learned.

"Any football player should take it upon himself to not put himself in a situation where he could put himself in harm," Mr. Woodward said. "Because it's not just affecting him, it's affecting his teammates. [Mr. Roethlisberger's] actions can adversely affect the whole Steelers organization. It comes down to a level of personal responsibility ... I think it's so stupid he has to be on a motorcycle."

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Barbara Bauer

Everybody makes mistakes when they're young

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At the South Side's Blue Note Cafe, motorcyclists flock every Sunday. Almost all of them, bartender Barbara Bauer said, wear helmets. "Ninety-nine percent," she said.

"Ben's on a pedestal, but he's still young," Ms. Bauer said. "He doesn't know all the responsibility yet. He grew up too fast by winning ... [When I first heard], I felt like my heart broke, like it was my son. I felt bad. But my opinion, he made his own mistake. My granddaughter and grandson just bought motorcycles. First thing they did? Bought a helmet."

As Ms. Bauer spoke, a few patrons at the bar -- including Ms. Laux, who'd migrated from Piper's Pub -- began an impromptu discussion about Mr. Roethlisberger's condition. They awaited the 4 p.m. news, hoping for an update.

"He's still a young boy," Ms. Bauer added. "This was his decision."

"But I just don't get it," Ms. Laux said. "I don't get it."

Chico Harlan can be reached at aharlan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1227.


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