Steelers' Big Ben working on his image
By Allen Wilson
News Sports Reporter
Updated: November 26, 2010, 09:37 AM
Ben Roethlisberger was a two-time Super Bowl champion before his 27th birthday. He owns several NFL and team records for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his first six seasons, he had seen it all and done it all.
Then he nearly lost it all.
Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a college student in the women's bathroom of a night club in Milledgeville, Ga., last March. That came on the heels of another allegation of sexual assault on a woman in a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2008.
No criminal charges were filed in either case, but the most recent incident resulted in him being suspended without pay for the first six games of this season for violating the NFL's player conduct policy. The suspension was later reduced to four games after Roethlisberger went through a league-mandated "professional behavior evaluation."
There are no shortcuts on the road to redemption, but Roethlisberger appears to be headed in the right direction.
The Steelers, who went 3-1 without Roethlisberger, are 4-2 since his return and tied for first place in the AFC North with Baltimore heading into Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills.
Roethlisberger said being away from football was hard. Not being around his teammates was harder.
"Just missing the guys in the locker room and the camaraderie," he said this week during a conference call with the Buffalo media. "We have an awesome locker room with awesome guys. It's a family. To be around those guys is the best part of this job."
Roethlisberger's teammates have noticed a change in him. They say he's making more of an effort to connect with everyone in the locker room and not just a chosen few.
"For years, he only hung out with certain people," wide receiver Hines Ward told reporters recently. "Maybe that was his defense mechanism or whatever. But he's opened himself up to everybody, playing basketball with all the rookies, hanging out with offensive and defensive players, special teams guys. Coming over, conversing. It's good to see him making a conscious effort to better himself."
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has seen changes, too.
"I tell you what I've seen from him is an increased appreciation for the monotony or the things that can be somewhat viewed as drudgery or things that we all tend to take for granted from time to time," he said. "I think when something is taken away from you it's a natural human response to gain an increased appreciation for it."
In his six games back, Roethlisberger is 117 of 187 passing (62.6 percent) for 1,579 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. His 101.9 passer rating ranks third in the NFL.
The Steelers are only 21st in total offense, 21st in passing and 13th in scoring, but they have scored 88 points in the last three games. Roethlisberger is coming off his most complete performance of the season, throwing for 275 yards and three touchdowns while running for a career-high 55 yards and another score in Pittsburgh's 35-3 rout of Oakland last Sunday.
Watching Roethlisberger on film, the Bills think he is playing as well as he ever has.
"As a matter of fact he might even be playing better since the suspension," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "He's checking the ball down more than he has ever done. He's not forcing the ball. He's staying out of bad situations. He's playing very, very well right now in my opinion."
"I feel good and feel like I'm playing well, but if you ask me I'm still striving to be better," Roethlisberger said. "I'll do that every week probably for the rest of my life. I just want to keep getting better and be the best I can be. Do I feel like I'm playing great football? No. Do I feel like I'm doing ok, yeah, sure."
Tomlin agrees his quarterback isn't where he needs to be yet.
"It's a process that we all go through in this NFL season," Tomlin said. "Of course, this process has been a little bit different than others. This guy has high standards for himself as do we, and he's working at it. He's getting better every week. He's getting better within games. Hopefully that continues."
Roethlisberger was in a jovial mood during his teleconference. He laughed during questions and jokingly said his willingness to stand in the pocket and take hits is more stupidity than toughness.
He admits he's in a better place in his life mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Steelers fans, many of whom were angered by his poor judgment off the field, seem to have accepted him back.
That doesn't mean everyone has been as forgiving. But Ward points to an axiom that holds true for all athletes who fall from grace: "Winning solves everything."