|Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press|
|Ben Roethlisberger can remain in the shadows because teammates like James Harrison keep Pittsburgh winning.|
PITTSBURGH -- Recklessness is what made Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a two-time Super Bowl champ. It's also what made him a man investigated for sexual assault, admonished by his owner, the NFL and a fan base that elevated him to the God-like status that made him feel entitled. He's been called a drama queen, and the toughest hombre in the league.
Now, he's just Ben.
Nobody is writing a reclamation story about Roethlisberger because, like Michael Vick or Kobe Bryant or Josh Hamilton, he's the only one who can pen a comeback. Trust was breeched and that's not easy to get back, but he's got time and he's doing all the right things, it seems.
He's playing good football and for most of us, that's why we know him and why we care. He's also laying low. In the 10 games he's played this season, about the only real excitement he's been involved in consisted of Richard Seymour's hand and his broken nose.
Off the field, all is quiet. People near him say he's kept a low profile after his high-profile investigation in the summer in which he was accused of sexually assaulting a college student in Milledgeville, Ga. He was never charged, but the sordid details that prosecutor Fred Bright free-wheelingly shared about the case did about as much damage to Roethlisberger's reputation as a scorned prosecutor could bring without proceeding with a trial.
I was in the courtroom when Bright hammered away at the case against Roethlisberger that the prosecutor said was too hard to prove, especially since the accuser did not want to proceed. I remember thinking that this was going to go one of three ways for Roethlisberger. He would either wither to the unprecedented judgment of his character; he would thumb his nose at the entire process; or he would remain humble and work harder at being better in every facet of his life.
Hines Ward says it's been the latter route his quarterback has traveled.
"He has a greater appreciation of the game," the wide receiver said. "You can see the smile on his face, the enjoyment. You can see the disappointment on his face when we don't get things going. When you get something taken away from you, especially something outside of football, you get a greater appreciation for the game and right now he's all about the game."
Roethlisberger has completed 203 of 335 passes for 2,600 yards, 14 touchdowns with five interceptions. He's playing like a man who saw his team win three of four games without him and doesn't want to let them down now that he's entrenched again.
He's been sacked 29 times and pounded more than that. In previous seasons he might have played up his toughness. This season, he's all business. He still takes sacks by holding the ball too long, but he also makes plays by breaking tackles and covering for a banged-up, inconsistent offensive line by extending plays with defenders hanging off him.
Roethlisberger has played well enough to where Pittsburgh could make a Super Bowl run. However, the spotlight hasn't fallen on him. Emerging star wide receiver Mike Wallace, 1,173-yard rusher Rashard Mendenhall, Ward, safety Troy Polamalu, and linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison have been the noted catalysts. Roethlisberger, by design, has stayed in the shadows.
"When everything happened, I wasn't a guy who came out and said that I don't care what people think about me, because you do," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week. "You're a human being; you care what people think. I hope and I think a lot of people really felt that I was genuine in the things I said, because I was. Hopefully, they have forgiven me or they are working toward it.
"We said it wasn't going to happen overnight. I strive every day to be a better person, a better son, everything. That's what I think we all should do."
No one knows if he's truly a changed man. He's behaving like one. The NFL is watching, as are the image-conscious Steelers. Shame and embarrassment can prompt humility and maturation in a hurry. Roethlisberger is said to be warmer to his teammates and media, and both have reciprocated in kind.
"I would go above and beyond for that guy," Wallace said. "We got his back because we feel like he's got ours."
The support seems widespread. In the past, that wasn't always the case. Teammates weren't always feeling Roethlisberger, who was viewed by some as self-absorbed. Remember when Ward questioned Roethlisberger sitting out a key game last season because of a concussion?
Then came the unflattering stories from fans and people who encountered Roethlisberger amid his investigation and suspension. But during Sunday's loss to the Jets at Heinz Field -- one that Roethlisberger almost salvaged in the waning seconds -- support for No. 7 was strong.
The Steelers have clinched a playoff spot with two games left and can wrap up the AFC North and a first-round bye with a victory vs. Carolina on Thursday night and a loss by Baltimore on Sunday. Two seasons after winning the Super Bowl on a winning drive led by Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh could be on the way back.
The same could be said about Roethlisberger.