Ben and Shaq stage thriller in Ambridge
Ben Roethlisberger arrives at Ambridge Area High School stadium yesterday evening.
Shaquille O'Neal arrives at Ambridge Area High School stadium yesterday.
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Hollywood came to Ambridge last night in the form of a tremendously scripted, undeniably staged football reality show.
But for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was one half of the made-for-TV-event's star power, the evening stage and the field's floodlights had to serve as a welcome respite from the spotlight he has been under as the subject of a lawsuit claiming he sexually assaulted a Nevada casino worker last summer.
Last night, Ambridge Area High School's Moe Rubenstein stadium was turned into a giant stage for the taping of an episode of "Shaq Vs.," a new ABC reality television show starring Cleveland Cavaliers center Shaquille O'Neal.
This taping featured Mr. O'Neal going head-to-head against Mr. Roethlisberger in a football competition. And at the end of the "game," Team Ben defeated Team Shaq, 21-14. But truth be told, the athletic component was just a portion of what Steelers fans had on their minds as about 5,000 of them settled into the stadium.
Mr. Roethlisberger arrived about 6 p.m., and was greeted with a roar from the crowd that had already gathered, as he walked toward the locker room wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. He was listening to some music on his earphones. A line of fans cheered and clapped for him, and many wanted autographs.
A minute later, he was gone, already in the basement locker room, followed by staffers, security crews and TV cameras. The fans continued to wait in line to enter the stadium. They were ecstatic; some waited more than three hours.
There was a significant buzz in and around the stadium as fans waited for a glimpse of the two stars. For them, last night was more than a Friday night at a high school stadium in Western Pennsylvania.
It also was a chance to see -- and support -- Mr. Roethlisberger, the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, now facing a serious lawsuit.
"I know it's not true," said fan-for-life Justin Laveing, 13, of Beaver Falls. "Big Ben is a great guy, and I don't think he'd do something like that."
Tammy Goodwin, 46, of Economy, stood near the front of the line with her husband, Shawn. A bus driver for the Ambridge Area School District, she arrived on line at 4:30 p.m. because she had to drop off her two teen-age daughters, Breanna and Allison, who were performing as flag twirlers for the taping.
Coming to see the daughters was her main objective, she said.
"But they're now the bonus," she added, referring to the athletes.
As for Mr. Roethlisberger's legal issues, she said, "I don't think anybody cares. We're all here for him."
By 5 p.m., when Shaq arrived in a red Ford, more than 150 fans were already waiting in line.
Mr. O'Neal, in a white T-shirt and patchwork madras shorts, sat down in front of locker No. 10, while the ABC cameras rolled.
"Lemme get my yoga on," he said, as he started to focus for the game.
Outside, 5-year-old Trevor Danielson was waving a multi-colored cardboard sign: "Shaq vs. Ben: Incredible."
Trevor's cousins, 14-year-old Wes Johnson and 12-year-old Dillon Johnson, were here with their grandmother, 61-year-old Kellyne Johnson, who was under a red-and-white umbrella. The Johnsons drove three hours from Jamestown, N.Y., to come to the event.
The kids wanted autographs. "I said, 'Don't plan on it,' " said Ms. Danielson, with a smile.
Meanwhile, everything was in place on the field. And it was pure Hollywood.
Six giant props -- more than 20 feet high -- in the shape of the show's logo, an intertwined capital "V" and lowercase "s" dotted the field.
By the time the gates opened, much later than advertised, Mr. O'Neal had left the field after warming up, leaving the field for Mr. Roethlisberger.
In what seemed like equal-parts fun and a public relations move, Mr. Roethlisberger played catch -- from the field -- with fans in the bleachers for at least 20 minutes before taping began.
During that time, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin -- flanked by his wife, Kiya, and three children -- walked up to Mr. Roethlisberger and exchanged a greeting.
Mr. Roethlisberger was introduced to the expected loud cheers from the largely partisan Steelers crowd.
Mr. O'Neal -- wearing a gold No. 8 jersey, the same color as his alma mater, Louisiana State University -- was also greeted with loud cheers when introduced.
At 9:15 p.m., the "game" began.
While the other players, members of the Pittsburgh Colts semi-pro team, wore full pads, neither Mr. Roethlisberger nor Mr. O'Neal wore pads or a helmet in the seven-on-seven passing scrimmage format.
Mr. O'Neal's athletic ability was evident early on as he threw a touchdown from 20 yards on the third snap he took.
A handicapping system was agreed upon that required Mr. Roethlisberger's team to go 40 yards for a touchdown while Mr. O'Neal's needed to travel only 20.
Mr. Roethlisberger, looking as if he could have thrown a touchdown just about every time he dropped back if he really wanted to, sort of took it easy on Mr. O'Neal, only tossing three touchdowns to the basketball great's two scores.
That elicited this from Mr. O'Neal, "I let you win, Ben! I let you win!"
Mr. O'Neal then pointed to Mr. Tomlin, standing in the corner of the end zone and jabbed Mr. Roethlisberger even a little more, continuing, "I didn't want to beat you in front of your coach, I couldn't embarrass you like that, Ben. That's why I let you win."
And for one summer night in Western Pennsylvania, football once again was king.
"Shaq Vs." will premiere at 9 p.m. Aug. 18 on ABC.