Steeler fans greet Roethlisberger warmly

Big Ben breathes sigh of relief at practice

At 8:48 a.m., Ben Roethlisberger started down the paved path to the practice field at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, ready to begin his first official practice in a season that continues to tumble toward uncertainty for the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. It was much different than the entrance he would make six hours later.

There were no spectators lining the walkway or the practice field when he walked with backup quarterback Charlie Batch in the morning, no fans sitting in the metal stands at Chuck Noll Field. His procession to the field was largely unnoticed and totally without fanfare. The only sounds were those of birds chirping in the light morning sun.

But, at 2:43 p.m., the atmosphere was much different.

This time, when Mr. Roethlisberger made the same walk down the same path for the afternoon practice, it was the first time he had appeared publicly in front of the Steelers Nation since his much-publicized sexual-assault case in Milledgeville, Ga. -- an incident for which he was never charged but one that has scarred his reputation and relationship in the city in which he performs.

He was accompanied by wide receiver Hines Ward, who made a point to wait for Mr. Roethlisberger and walk with him into the gauntlet of fans.

"I wasn't worried about the morning practice," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "It was this afternoon one."

In the end, there was no reason to worry at all.

As he made his way to the practice field, Mr. Roethlisberger heard nothing but cheers from the crowd, estimated by campus officials at 10,000. By the time the he and his teammates were stretching, Mr. Roethlisberger said the nerves and apprehension about how he would be received by Steelers fans -- fears he revealed during an exclusive interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a day earlier -- had all but dissipated.

"I didn't know [what to expect]," he said Saturday after the first official day of training camp had ended. "I was nervous and scared, but it was neat to hear everyone cheering and see my jersey and [get a] lot of encouragement.

"Once we started walking down the stairs and seeing the fans and hearing them cheer, I kind of got lost in camp and being at Saint Vincent. Everything that has happened, we put behind us because it's time for football now."

That certainly seemed to be the reaction of the crowd to Mr. Roethlisberger, who cheered him every time he completed a pass.

While the reception was certainly not to be confused with a hero's welcome, there were no derisive comments or boos from the spectators that ringed the field and sat in the stands.

After practice, Mr. Roethlisberger went over to the stands at the south end of the field and signed autographs, even posing for pictures and giving each of his shoes to several spectators.

But maybe what pleased Mr. Roethlisberger the most was taking the first official snap of training camp with the first-team offense -- something he did in the morning and afternoon practice sessions. He referred to the gesture as "pretty special."

"He's our quarterback," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "Everybody else is fighting for a job."

"I had talked to [Arians] about it, so I was hoping that wouldn't change," Mr. Roethlisberger said.

"It felt good to be able to get in there with the first group. The linemen and receivers and running backs said it was good to have me in there."

Then he added, "I understand these guys have a lot of support and a lot of love for me. A lot of them came to me today after comments they heard I said about the fans and not knowing what would happen, and they said, 'Don't worry about it, because we got your back no matter what.' That was special."

Curiously, the player who walked with him to face the crowd was Mr. Ward, who last month told the NFL Network that Mr. Roethlisberger needed to be more forthcoming about what happened in Milledgeville if he wanted to win back the trust of his teammates.

"I'm just trying to be a leader and a friend, regardless of whatever people want to make of our relationship," Mr. Ward said. "At the end of the day, he still depends on me, and I go out and catch 95 balls.

"There's no beef between Ben and I. I offered to walk out there with him because all I heard this morning was that he was worried about the fans. Well, let's go out together and face it together."

And the reaction?

"I didn't hear anything negative," Mr. Ward said. "We had a great first day."

Gerry Dulac: . First Published August 1, 2010 4:00 AM


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