The 2005 season turned out even better than Ben Roethlisberger imagined, and his first Super Bowl victory at season's end wasn't the only one that involved a ring.
That August at training camp at Saint Vincent College, he met a Steelers fan from New Castle named Ashley Harlan. On July 23, only a week before the Steelers are scheduled to report to training camp (provided an NFL lockout of the players is lifted by then), Mr. Roethlisberger and Ms. Harlan will marry.
"I think a small part of her is hoping we hold out for a week so we can honeymoon," Mr. Roethlisberger said Wednesday. "I told her I was laughing with coach [Mike] Tomlin; he said 'You guys might have to have the honeymoon suite at Saint Vincent.' "
The 29-year-old quarterback spoke for the first time publicly since Super Bowl XLV during an interview with the Post-Gazette at his home near North Park. He confirmed for the first time the news that broke of his engagement to Ms. Harlan over Christmas and talked about his future wife and their summer wedding plans.
"I was surprised at how much media attention it was getting -- it's just an engagement," he said. "I never expected it to be on the front pages of all the papers and websites. There was speculation what our invitations would look like and who is coming! It almost seemed surreal, it was like a movie or something, it was weird."
Some of those stories detailed a "wedding" gift registry at various department stores, which in reality was a registry for Ms. Harlan's shower. Because of the publicity, she has received packages from unknown people who have bought gifts for a shower they will not attend.
"We've gotten a lot of gifts from people we don't know," Mr. Roethlisberger said.
They expect more than 500 people at the wedding that will be in the Pittsburgh area. The guest list includes all of his teammates along with coaches and team executives. They're still looking for somewhere to hold the reception after trying to rent the Consol Energy Center, which has a previous engagement -- a World Wrestling Entertainment show. Guests will be asked not to bring gifts but make donations to Mr. Roethlisberger's foundation. He will give any gifts to Ronald McDonald House and Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
"I don't know if it's ever been done before, but it's something I wanted to do and she's on board," he said. "We're just hoping that people who come to the wedding give a dollar or a thousand dollars or whatever it is, and at the end we'll put it all together and write a big check to Ronald McDonald House and Children's Hospital and put everyone's name who donated."
It may be a relatively short engagement but the relationship was much longer in the making. After finishing an afternoon practice in August 2005, Mr. Roethlisberger walked through part of the Saint Vincent campus, ran into a fan and started talking to him. The guy had a sister, Ashley Harlan.
"We were kind of on and off for five years -- almost six years now -- so I've known her for a while. It's not like a random new person. We dated awhile ago; we have been friends ever since."
Mr. Roethlisberger said he was determined to not only change his image but also change his ways since he was publicly humiliated -- but never charged -- after a female college student claimed he sexually assaulted her in a Georgia bar 13 months ago. Players say he has become a better teammate and friend, and many from the media covering him to those working in the front office have noticed a change in attitude. He has stayed out of the limelight, intentionally, and avoided talking even after news of his engagement first leaked while the team prepared for the playoffs in January.
Some of the reaction to his engagement coming so soon after his personal problems last year was met with skepticism.
"People will always have opinions of everybody and me, and that's fine, they're entitled," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "But people who know her, know me, know us ... it's funny because I've even had lot of fan mail through my website and stuff; people will write in and say -- even before any word came out about an engagement -- 'Ben, you look like something's different with you. You look like a happier person, you play happy, you smile more on the field.' Part of that is because I'm a happier person, I'm in a happy place, but a lot of that has to do with her, too.
"People can say that it is whatever, but people who know and can see and are around us and know me, know that it's something special when you find that person, and I'm extremely lucky."
Ms. Harlan, a physician's assistant who turns 27 in July, lives at home with her parents. Mr. Roethlisberger cited the couple's religious faith and beliefs as the reasons for not living together until marriage. He also hopes she can continue to live her life out of the spotlight.
"I try to protect her as much as I can. People have gone to her parents' house and have been doing some things," Mr. Roethlisberger said of the media. "That bothers me a little bit because it's what I do for a living, I have to deal with it, but her parents and her, that's not what they have to do. I understand it's going to happen a little bit, but I'm still going to try to be very protective of the people I love -- my family, my sister, my aunts, uncles, grandparents and now her. I try to be very protective of them because I don't want her to have to be scrutinized over every little thing she does."