Thank goodness Ben Roethlisberger is back.
I don't say that because I'm a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan. As you (and he) have no doubt noticed, the team's fared just fine without him. Likewise, I don't say it as a fantasy owner who had Roethlisberger stashed on the bench for the first month. I expect his statistical value to drop this season as the coaching staff continues to abide by this offseason's Rooney mandate to commit to running the ball.
No, I say it because I'm tired of all the snarky remarks and holier-than-thou questions like "Are you still gonna be a Steelers fan with that guy as your quarterback?" I've been hearing 'em since early March, when Roethlisberger was accused of what he was accused of by a college student in Georgia.
Just another reminder that while there's a troubling number of NFL quarterbacks featured on TMZ, those signal callers are outnumbered in spades by the countless people out there who love watching them fall. The real estate market may be struggling in general, but property up on Mt. Pious is hotter than ever. Why not? It's the ideal place for the self-righteous to look down at all the flawed, mistake-prone people in the real world.
How do I know? Because -- in the name of full disclosure and for fear of being called a hypocrite -- I have to admit that, yes, I rented a place up on Mt. Pious this past spring. Right after the news of the Roethlisberger scandal broke, I got a nice little timeshare in the same neighborhood as Dr. Laura, Elizabeth Hasselbeck and Tony Dungy.
I told anyone who'd listen that I hoped the Rooney family would part ways with Roethlisberger for soiling the black-and-gold flag. I said at the time that I'd prefer the Steelers go 2-14 with Chaz Batch under center than have Roethlisberger return. I know the cool kids scoff at that sort of thinking. They'd say it doesn't matter if Roethlisberger is a good guy, only that he wins games. Maybe that's true in other places and with other teams, but it's not like that with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Or at least, it didn't used to be.
Aside from whatever harm he allegedly did to that student and to his own marketability, Roethlisberger cost Steelers fans the moral high ground. Sure, the Cowboys, Ravens and Bengals might've employed talented-but-shady characters in the name of winning at all costs, but not the Pittsburgh Steelers. No longer, though. Our team is just like the rest.
I took comfort at the time in knowing I wasn't alone among Steelers fans. In a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review poll conducted back in April, 61 percent of respondents thought Roethlisberger deserved to be fined and/or suspended, and 23 percent thought he should be traded. I don't know what the results would be if that same poll were taken today, but I doubt I'll ever personally regard Roethlisberger in the same way.
That's saying something, considering I wrote songs about the guy (seriously, check this out). On countless occasions, I defended his pigskin-throwing honor to any so-called expert who dared rank his abilities behind those of Drew Brees, Philip Rivers or Carson Palmer. I used to call him "Seven," elevating him - in my mind, at least - to a more mythical plane. Now, he's just plain Roethlisberger.
That being said, I've decided that I'll be rooting for the Steelers this Sunday. Truth is, I've softened my harsh stance on Roethlisberger a little bit, if only because - with all due respect, Commish Goodell - a four-game suspension now seems a little stiff considering the current situation of a certain purple-wearing, tendinitis-having elderly QB whose name may or may not be Brett Favre goes unchecked.
More importantly, though, I'll root for the Steelers because they transcend just one player. I don't assume the Steelers' significance to the city of Pittsburgh is greater than, say, the Chiefs' significance to Kansas City, but I do know from firsthand experience that the success or failure of the Steelers does nothing less than define the collective mood of the people of Pittsburgh through the long, cold winter. When the Steelers win, the spring sun seems right around the corner. Sure, it's reflected glory. Maybe it's even delusional. But for better or worse, it's why we care about sports.
Some of my pals don't like that I use the royal first person plural when discussing the Steelers, as in "We need a touchdown on this drive." They say that since I've never played a down, I'm not entitled to go "we" with the team. My response? We don't give a crap what you like.
On Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger will belatedly start his seventh season with the Steelers. Me? I was rooting for his team a decade before he was alive. What's more, I'll be rooting for them 'til I die. In other words, I'm far more invested in this team than any player passing through town for a few years.
You think the players care as much about the team as you do? Now that's what I call fantasy football. The essential requirement of us sports fans is the ability to delude ourselves into believing that hyper-athletic millionaires care as much about our hometowns as we do just because they happen to wear our teams' jerseys. Intellectually, I've known that to be the case for half my life. Now, though, because of Roethlisberger, I feel like I have to rationalize my loyalty to the team.
So yeah, I'll root for Roethlisberger this weekend, not because I'm a sucker for his phony redemption story, but because his success is the Steelers' success, which in turn means success to the people of Pittsburgh.
Besides, when I consider the alternatives out there, I'm happy that I'll be rooting for the Steelers over any number of other teams:
» Take the sorry case of the Cleveland Browns fan, whose team is willfully submitting Colt McCoy to the Steelers D this weekend. By the end of Sunday night, the name "McCoy" will no doubt belong in Browns' lore along with Byner, Cockroft, Modell, Couch and Quinn. Speaking of names, this team calls themselves "Browns,"' yet they wear an orange helmet. Don't even bother trying to make sense of that. The sports scene has gotten so bad there, the city's fan base appears a lock to become repeat winners of the Sonic Award, given annually to the city's fans who've suffered the most during the calendar year (so named for the Seattle Sportspocalypse of 2008). Browns, Tribe, LeBron. Game, set, match.
» I'm also glad I don't root for the Chargers. I know, I know, San Diego fans. This is how you've started pretty much every season since Norval took the helm. And I know your Bolts will make their annual turnaround and go on a dominant three-month run. Sorry to be a jerk, but let me also remind you how your last several seasons have ended: badly.
» The Bengals? Between the hideous uniforms, the well-documented naughtiness and the losses that have inevitably gone along with their very occasional playoff berths, I shudder to think where my self-esteem would be if I tried rooting for this team.
» It goes without saying my heart also goes out to fans of the Detroit Lions. I admire anyone who's been able to stick with that team over the last half-century, even if you are clinically suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. I just can't figure out why, in an era when almost every great sports tradition gets set aside in the name of greater profits, Detroit still gets to host the early Thanksgiving Day game every year. It's amazing we, as a nation, can still work up the appetite to eat after having to watch the Lions.
» My thoughts and prayers go out to you poor Bills fans, as well. You can't bring up heartbreaking teams without talking about the losers of four straight Super Bowl losses. But set that aside for a moment: Your city is named after the majestic American Buffalo, which was nearly rendered extinct a century ago, yet your team is named after Buffalo Bill, the man most commonly associated with trying to kill off said buffalo. Weird choiceâ¦ but it kind of explains everything you've been through ever since.
» Heaven forbid I'd been born into a Vikings house. Oh, the pain for those abused fans. Gary Anderson cost them - and, really, all football fans - a potentially fantastic Super Bowl matchup against Elway's Broncos back in '99 when he missed that kick to put away the out-of-their-depth Falcons. And what about that dome they play in? It's a crime (or at least should be) for any NFC North team to play its home games indoors. C'mon, Ziggy, even the Twins play out in the elements! Football players aren't supposed to be wimpier than baseball players. The fact that you haven't been to the Super Bowl since the team moved indoors is not a coincidence.
Y'know, I just remembered something: this is a fantasy football column. Oops. I guess I'm not perfect, just like Roethlisberger. Good luck if you've got him in your fantasy lineup this week. You know I'll be rooting for his success. I just wish I could be rooting for Seven.