Big Ben, Steelers paying the price
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger takes a knee and prays before the start of last week's game against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field.
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From the moment Hines Ward waited to walk with him to the practice field at Saint Vincent College, lending moral support for his first appearance in public on the opening day of training camp, to the night he stood in the locker room at Heinz Field, knowing it was the last time he would be with his teammates until Oct. 4, Ben Roethlisberger impacted the Steelers in more ways this summer than probably anyone even imagined, maybe even more than when he was helping them win two Super Bowl titles.
And there is plenty more to come.
To some, including the quarterback himself, the saga of Ben Roethlisberger -- thrust into the public consciousness after a drunken March night in Milledgeville, Ga., that eventually led to allegations of sexual assault but no charges -- is only warming up.
To be sure, the public drama of his legal ordeal that included the release of sordid descrip-tions of what reportedly happened in a nightclub bathroom with a 20-year-old college student tarnished Mr. Roethlisberger's reputation, perhaps beyond repair, and fractured and appalled a Steelers fan base, some of whom wanted him shipped out of town.
But, what happens in the next four weeks while he serves a suspension for violating the National Football League's personal conduct policy -- and, perhaps more important, how he will be received by his teammates when he returns -- is a central issue that will burn quietly in the locker room, out of the public glare, for the remainder of the season and maybe beyond.
"And it's all because of a situation that happened off the field," said Mr. Ward, who enters his 13th NFL season as the team's all-time leader in receptions (895) and receiving yards (10,947). "And we're the ones who got to deal with it."
Unfairly or not, the Steelers players who will be on the field at 1 p.m. today against the Atlanta Falcons are the ones who will really pay the price for Mr. Roethlisberger's transgressions at the Capital City nightclub in Milledgeville.
But, with the full support of the Rooney family, who helped craft the punishment for their quarterback, that is the message Commissioner Roger Goodell wanted to deliver to Mr. Roethlisberger: Behavior off the field can indeed affect what happens on the field.
Fines, community service and charity work do not carry the same impact.
The Steelers stood firmly behind the sentence, which is why they did not seek a reduction in his suspension beyond the minimum four games. When the organization made the decision to rehabilitate Mr. Roethlisberger and not trade him, they did so with the knowledge and full acceptance that the franchise might suffer in the short term more than the quarterback himself.
"It's going to hurt; it's going to be hard," Mr. Roethlisberger said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the days leading up to the final preseason game Sept. 2 against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field. "I'm never going to take credit for a win, but I take credit for losses."
In the four games in which they will be without their two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, the Steelers play the Falcons, who are coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history and are picked by some to unseat the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints as NFC South division champions; the Tennessee Titans, who won eight of their final 10 games in 2009; the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers; and division rival Baltimore Ravens, maybe the favorite in the AFC North.
It is conceivable the Steelers could start the season 1-3 before Mr. Roethlisberger returns from suspension Oct. 4, the day after the Steelers play the Ravens at Heinz Field. And even Mr. Roethlisberger has wondered how he will walk into the locker room, if that is the case, knowing his absence likely contributed to the poor start.
"I thought about it for the first time the other night, and I don't know -- I don't know if I'm going to cry or if I'm going to smile or go hug everybody," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "I honestly don't know yet. But it's going to be good to be back."
"He'll walk in with his head high, ready to work, ready to help us," said defensive end Brett Keisel, one of Mr. Roethlisberger's best friends on the team. "I think that's got to be your mentality -- to come in and make us all stronger. We all understand the situation and we're all going to welcome him with open arms.
"I think everyone will be happy he's back, regardless where we are, record-wise. He's one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. To have a guy like that back on the field, it helps."
But it might not be as simple as that.
"If that were me, in his shoes, and we started off bad, that would devastate me because I know what I bring to the team, I know what I mean to this organization, and I let my off-field actions be the reason [for that]," Mr. Ward said. "It may not be the total reason why we started off bad, but I know me being on field gives us a better chance to win. I would be disappointed. And what happens if they have success without me? And to not be able to be around the guys, that's a whole other ballgame."
That's why some of the players will be curious to see how Mr. Roethlisberger handles his return. And how they react to him.
"We don't want to see any 'The savior's back,' that type of thing," said injured right tackle Willie Colon, who will not play this season because of surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. Mr. Colon was one of the players who attended Mr. Roethlisberger's birthday gathering at his off-season house in Reynolds Plantation, Ga., and was at the Capital City nightclub the night the incident occurred.
"We all have the attitude that once we put on the helmet and we wear the Steeler logo, we put our hands in the dirt and go to work. That's what we expect to see from him. We don't want to see the whole lights-camera-action thing. That's not us."
Still, there is little doubt that every move Mr. Roethlisberger continues to make will be magnified. Just like the past six months.
"The whole situation is going to have drama, period," Mr. Ward said.
Under terms of his suspension, Mr. Roethlisberger is not allowed around the team -- not on their South Side office property, not at Heinz Field -- and is not allowed to talk with coaches or front-office personnel. He is also not allowed to talk to any of his teammates about what a league spokesman called "Steelers-related football matters," but he is not prohibited from talking to them or seeing them about other matters not pertaining to the team.
That foiled the plans of guard Trai Essex, who said the offensive linemen were planning to meet with Mr. Roethlisberger during his suspension to keep him abreast of what was happening with the team.
"This is a unique situation," Mr. Essex said before terms of the suspension were finalized. "We haven't had to deal with this with a player of his magnitude before. It's a process we'll have to get familiar with."
Mr. Roethlisberger said he will keep busy during his suspension working here with his personal quarterback coach, George Whitfield Jr., a former college and Arena League quarterback who runs Whitfield Athletix in San Diego, Calif. Mr. Roethlisberger said he is also hoping to help a local high-school football team.
"I'm not 100 percent sure yet what I'll be doing," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "I'd like to stay [involved] with football things. That will help."
In reducing his suspension from six games to four, Mr. Goodell said he was satisfied with the positive change in Mr. Roethlisberger and his compliance with terms of his league-mandated treatment and counseling. Mr. Roethlisberger has not said whom he has turned to for guidance -- his closest friends on the team are Mr. Keisel and the offensive linemen -- but on several occasions since the Milledgeville incident, he has mentioned things his father, Ken, has always told him.
But, regardless of any personal metamorphosis, Mr. Roethlisberger's behavior in a small college town six months ago has put his teammates in an untenable position. No matter how much they defend him, they know any success they might have in 2010 could be compromised by what happens in the four games without him.
Couple that with the loss of former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, who was traded to the New York Jets because of repeated off-field issues, and the Steelers will be facing what Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu called "the biggest test of all" this season.
"I don't look at Ben and automatically think about the issues he's had to deal with this offseason," Mr. Polamalu said. "It's really not our job to really think about those things. We're not trying to portray the dramatic pitch to the fans out there. All our job is is to come out here and put together the best team we can and come out and produce."
On the first day of practice at Saint Vincent College, shortly after Mr. Roethlisberger took the field with Mr. Ward by his side, Coach Mike Tomlin had his 28-year-old quarterback take the first snap of training camp with the first-team offense, even though that wouldn't be the case when the regular season would start more than six weeks later.
Asked if he were sending a message, Mr. Tomlin replied tersely, "No."
But, indeed, Mr. Tomlin was sending some kind of message, whether to the players, fans or even the quarterback himself, that Mr. Roethlisberger was his No. 1 guy. And he spent most of the preseason reinforcing the point, electing to start Mr. Roethlisberger in each of the final three preseason games.
At one point, Mr. Tomlin referred to the process of how he was deploying his quarterbacks as "double thumbs up."
"I've heard people say, 'Why is he playing in the preseason if he's not going to be here? Shouldn't we focus on guys who will be playing?' I've heard it all," Mr. Ward said. "You see Ben out there in the huddle, knowing he isn't going to be out there the first four games, and we're still having to decide on a starting quarterback -- everyone in this locker room is affected. We're all dealing with it the best we can."
Indeed, the Milledgeville incident has impacted the professional lives of many, beginning with backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was reacquired in a draft-day trade specifically to bring insurance to the position. When Mr. Leftwich sprained his medial collateral ligament in the final preseason game, the Steelers were forced to keep veteran Charlie Batch on the roster, causing them to cut guard Kraig Urbik, last year's third-round pick. When Mr. Roethlisberger returns to the 53-man roster in October, the team will have to cut another player, perhaps Mr. Batch, to make room.
But the incident also has impacted Mr. Roethlisberger, who appeared to change the way he interacted with people, even with his own teammates, according to those who know him.
"All this bad pub, he wants to prove to everybody that he is a good person," Mr. Essex said. "We know what kind of person he is, what kind of teammate he is. But he's out to prove something."
"We've all made bad decisions and choices and he's dealing with the consequences of doing that," Mr. Ward said. "It's how he's repairing himself. The camaraderie he has now is night and day. He's involved with everybody. For so many years, you'd see him go his own way and you really didn't know what was going on. Now he's mingling with rookies, veteran guys, older guys."
Asked why Mr. Roethlisberger is doing that now, Mr. Ward said, "I have no idea. Maybe it was a humbling experience. When you have success at a young age like he did and you're up here, there's only one place to go when something goes wrong -- you go down."
For his part, Mr. Tomlin spent the preseason trying to publicly downplay the significance of Mr. Roethlisberger's suspension. He was careful to not reveal which quarterback -- Mr. Leftwich or Dennis Dixon -- would be the starter in the season opener, even though most signs pointed to Mr. Leftwich. What's more, he was especially careful not to judge Mr. Roethlisberger or bring into question any issues about his character or even his supposedly new behavior.
When asked Aug. 13 if he thought Mr. Roethlisberger was a different person, Mr. Tomlin said, "I don't know how different he is. I try to develop intimate relationships with people that's characteristic of leadership. When you develop those relationships, sometimes you have perspective on people that maybe others don't have.
"From my perspective, Ben is Ben. He's a football junkie. He likes to compete. He's enjoying camp. Those are very consistent with things he's done for the four seasons I've been around him."
There is little doubt Mr. Roethlisberger will be a different person when he returns in four weeks. There is even less doubt who will be the starting quarterback when he does, though that remains part of the subplot.
Of bigger concern is how Mr. Roethlisberger, after being apart from his teammates for four weeks, will change the makeup of a team attempting to form a personality without him.
"He understands what he did to the organization, he understands the mark he left on his family, he understands all the ridicule, he understands all of that," Mr. Colon said. "But, there's no doubt in my heart he's learned his lesson for what he's done. He's extremely passionate about getting this team where it needs to be and getting another [Super Bowl] ring.
"That's his sole purpose and that's his sole focus."
First Published September 12, 2010 12:00 am