For Roethlisberger, complications grow
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FINDLAY, Ohio -- Ben Roethlisberger grew up in a town that Congress designated as "Flag City USA" in 1974, and that northwest Ohio city of about 40,000 takes pride in such middle-America charm.
A star-spangled Main Street, lined with U.S. flags, cuts through the center of the city, which is 94 percent white, conservative and church-going. Its economy is dominated by manufacturing: Cooper Tire and Rubber and Whirlpool have large plants, and the city also is the headquarters of Marathon Oil.
Mr. Roethlisberger, whose carefully guarded privacy has been disturbed by sexual-assault allegations made last month by a Nevada woman in a civil lawsuit, has seen his life become immeasurably more complicated since he dominated Findlay's ball fields.
Mr. Roethlisberger was 10 when his family arrived in Findlay in 1992, having moved from Lima, Ohio, less than an hour away. He was just 2 when his parents, Ken and Ida, split up. When he was 8, Ida died in a car accident. Ken, an engineer and former college quarterback and pitcher at Georgia Tech, by then had remarried, and Ben calls Brenda Roethlisberger "Mom."
Sports consumed young Ben's life. He was a natural athlete who excelled at everything from pingpong to golf. He captained the football, basketball and baseball teams at Findlay High School.
He was described as friendly but quiet as a high school student. His old coaches said he had the confidence of a big-time athlete, but he was never too cocky nor was he a troublemaker. Old friend Mike Iriti said he never saw Mr. Roethlisberger drink alcohol until they were well into college.
The Roethlisbergers were strong Methodists, and Mr. Iriti said Mr. Roethlisberger has kept his faith to this day. People around Findlay pointed to Ken and Brenda's influence as crucial to Ben's success -- and that of his younger sister, Carlee, who now plays basketball at the University of Oklahoma.
"He's got the most wonderful family you ever want to know," said Jerry Snodgrass, Mr. Roethlisberger's former basketball coach.
Mr. Roethlisberger chose to attend Miami of Ohio, where he was quickly labeled the quarterback of the future. Mr. Iriti, a wide receiver, joined him, and the pair roomed together their freshman year.
On campus in Oxford, Ohio, friends said, Mr. Roethlisberger was not much of a partygoer.
"He would come and stop by the football get-togethers, but he wouldn't go up to the bars," said former teammate J.D. Vonderheide, now the director of football operations at Miami. "He would stay and hang out with his close friends. ... They weren't getting in trouble or any of that stuff. I think he knew even at that point in time what was at stake."
As in high school, Mr. Roethlisberger had a couple of serious girlfriends, Mr. Iriti said, and was not considered a "player" with the ladies.
When it came to football, of course, Mr. Roethlisberger became one of the best players in Miami history. He started all three years there, broke nearly every school passing record and became an All-American. The Steelers grabbed him with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft.
Mr. Roethlisberger moved to a townhouse on Washington's Landing during the summer before his rookie year and largely kept to himself. He surprised neighbors with his small-town manners, whether it was writing thank-you cards to those who had baked him pies, or one day helping a neighbor's ailing mother.
Sports radio host Mark Madden's late mother, Peggy Ann, lived with her son the last 2 1/2 years of her life while suffering from a lung disease. To leave the house for outings with friends, the former North Hills High teacher had to be helped up and down stairs, into a wheelchair and the car.
Once Mr. Madden fell asleep while his mother was out to lunch. He woke up, went into his kitchen and there was his mother -- who died in May 2006 -- drinking coffee with Mr. Roethlisberger, who had helped her into his home.
"It remains one of my fondest memories of her time here," Mr. Madden said. "It was something to see. It was amazing. ... I can't say enough great things about that moment."
In January 2006, Mr. Roethlisberger became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. That June he was in a serious motorcycle accident near Downtown -- while not wearing a helmet, despite a warning from then-coach Bill Cowher.
Mr. Roethlisberger recovered rapidly from facial and head injuries, and made it back to the field for the ensuing season despite another medical setback -- an appendectomy. But for a man who, until that point, seemingly had never struggled at anything, the experience was jarring.
"It was one of those wake-up calls: Look, you got it. Don't ruin it," Mr. Iriti said.
"He's gotten to be closer with people. He's more himself now. ... You start to realize you're not invincible. I think he's a lot stronger for it."
June 2007 brought another personal setback as his college coach Terry Hoeppner -- with whom Mr. Roethlisberger was close -- died of a brain tumor.
After recovering from his accident, Mr. Roethlisberger moved to a $2.2 million home in Hampton, in an expansive development filled with families and middle-age couples.
He holds a barbecue for the neighborhood every summer -- letting kids swim in his pool and eat catered food -- while requesting no photos or autographs, said neighbor Susan Weeks. Most of the time "you wouldn't know he's up there," she said.
At Halloween, Mr. Roethlisberger and friends sit at the bottom of his driveway and give out candy, said another neighbor, Sue Leech. Her kids once put a sign on their lawn wishing him luck before a big game and he came by and signed it.
"He's delightful," she said.
Though he was wealthy when he moved to the North Hills, Mr. Roethlisberger entered the earnings stratosphere when he signed his eight-year, $102 million contract with the Steelers last year. Sports Illustrated calculated that Mr. Roethlisberger, in combined salary and endorsements, will bring in nearly $15.3 million this year, making him 47th in their yearly ranking of the top 50 grossing athletes.
Mr. Roethlisberger's endorsement roster includes Nike and Dick's Sporting Goods, which recently debuted a television commercial of No. 7 dodging would-be tacklers after trying on cleats in a store. The Q Scores Company, which measures athlete appeal and public recognition, gives Mr. Roethlisberger a score of 23, well above the average score of 14 and not far behind high-profile quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning and Tom Brady.
As a result of his celebrity, Mr. Roethlisberger's love life has become a public fascination. He reportedly dated golfer Natalie Gulbis in 2005, and was seen out with actress Missy Peregrym starting in 2007.
Mr. Iriti said Mr. Roethlisberger has brought Ms. Peregrym home to Findlay, where the two appeared smitten and Ms. Peregrym seemed down-to-earth. Mr. Iriti said recently that he did not know whether they were still together, and Ms. Peregrym's publicist did not return a request for comment.
During the season, Mr. Roethlisberger's inner circle consists primarily of two college friends -- Martin Nance and Jaime Cooper -- and a pair of bodyguards/personal assistants who often accompany him in public.
Recently his parents have pulled up stakes in Findlay and moved to Pittsburgh to help with his many obligations. His father, Ken, is running his foundation and is taking over the interviews of applicants for one of the quarterback's favorite endeavors, giving police departments money for police dogs.
The quarterback's off-season is dominated by golf. He has a home in a Greensboro, Ga., resort community called Reynolds Plantation that has five golf courses, and he spends time between there and various charitable causes, including charity basketball games in Findlay and Pittsburgh, not to mention the American Century Celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nev., which he attended last month and where the alleged sexual assault occurred last summer.
Asked about the pains that come with his son's celebrity status -- he would not comment on the civil suit -- Ken Roethlisberger said it has its good side, too. Especially for a golfer.
His star power "gets him on some pretty good courses," Ken Roethlisberger said with a laugh. "So there's a benefit to it, there's definitely a benefit."
Still, the 27-year-old is adamant about protecting his privacy -- he would not be interviewed for this story and threatened to stop interviews at training camp last week when questions touched on the lawsuit. This sensitivity goes back years -- one of the reasons he didn't attend Ohio State University was because a recruiter from the football powerhouse mispronounced his Swiss surname.
In 2006, WPXI-TV sent a young reporter to his Washington's Landing townhouse to look into complaints from neighbors -- some large cars and SUVs do not fit into the garages at the development, and Mr. Roethlisberger and other Steelers were parking them on the narrow streets, to the annoyance of some. (Former players Plaxico Burress, Chad Scott, Marvel Smith and Duce Staley also lived in the community.)
The quarterback stopped doing interviews with Channel 11 for some time, but relented after developing a rapport with one of the station's sports anchors.
Some of the privacy concerns are hard-earned. When Mr. Roethlisberger does halftime autograph sessions at charity Steelers basketball games, he has to be placed behind the scorer's table so he is not overrun.
"The adults are unbelievable -- they will push little kids out of the way to get autographs," the team's longtime basketball coach, Tom O'Malley, said. "Ben has to tell the adults, 'Hey, that kid was in front of you.' "
Though Mr. Roethlisberger had no problems with most of his neighbors when he lived in the city, he had to leave after too many fans discovered his address.
It made for creepy situations where fans would drop by looking for the star, Mr. Madden said.
"I witnessed it. One night a couple of young girls, in their preteens, were chauffeured there by their parents to get autographs. He was creeped out, but under the circumstances incredibly gracious," Mr. Madden said.
"The place he lives now has like a mile-long driveway. That's not coincidence."
Stationed at the end of a cul-de-sac, Mr. Roethlisberger's Hampton house is among the largest in a development full of sprawling homes. It's also set back, at the top of a curling driveway with a street entrance guarded by an iron gate.
Through the bars, a clear view of the quarterback's sanctuary is obscured by trees from any unwanted visitor.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Aug. 12, 2009) Terry Hoeppner, the college coach of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, died in June 2007. This story as originally published Aug. 11, 2009 listed an incorrect month.
First Published August 10, 2009 12:00 am