PITTSBURGH – You see it all around town these days. The “Big Ben” signs gradually returning to the windows in working-class hillside neighborhoods. The No. 7 jerseys on the backs of suburban store clerks, grade-school teachers – even, strikingly, children.
Most prominently, you see it in how the discussion unfolds when talk turns to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Instead of phrases like “criminal investigation,” “NFL suspension” and “bad example,” the words today are back to: Completed passes. Makes things happen. Leader.
With the Steelers one green-and-white obstacle away from reaching their latest Super Bowl, the NFL star turned hero in free fall is, in the eyes of Pittsburgh fans, on the rise again – albeit gradually.
“I was surprised,” says Ray Skoff, 41, a lifelong Pittsburgher and Steelers season-ticket holder for two decades. “Behavior and attitude-wise, I believe he’s done a total 180, how he presents himself on and off the field. It seems totally different.”
Roethlisberger sat out the season’s first four games on the orders of the NFL, which said he had violated the league’s personal conduct policy – an outgrowth of a college student’s accusations that he sexually assaulted her in Georgia last March. He was never prosecuted over the second such set of allegations against him.
Between March and September, Roethlisberger’s status in Pittsburgh sometimes seemed touch and go. The Rooney family, owner of the team for three generations, was watching warily. Some of the most stalwart of Steeler fans demanded he hit the road for good.
Roethlisberger replica jerseys abruptly disappeared from some stores, and parents talked of barring their kids from wearing them.
Though its fans are fiercely loyal, Pittsburgh also tends to wear its no-nonsense mill town sensibilities like a medal of honor. People here have never hesitated to upbraid pro-sports players considered to have outgrown their britches.
Pirates legend Roberto Clemente spent years enduring grief from fans and sports writers who said he whined, faked injuries and didn’t give his all. His successor in right field, Dave Parker, got the same treatment for being arrogant. In the early 1990s, Pirates Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla fared little better when their egos were perceived to have swelled.
But nearly five months after Roethlisberger’s suspension, a willingness to forgive seems to have become the order of the day for Pittsburghers – and not merely because they once again have a powerhouse football team on their hands.
Since his return from NFL-ordered exile, Roethlisberger has behaved as if he’s living up to his April statement of regret. He has come across as respectful, collaborative, humble, even communitarian. And there have been no new reports of problematic behavior.
Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward offered a bit more insight. Asked this week about the new Roethlisberger, Ward told of a teammate who is making efforts to hang out with everyone rather than staying in cliques, and who is more extroverted both in the locker room and beyond it.
“And not just with his teammates, but in the community, staying extra during training camp, staying after when he doesn’t have to,” Ward said this week. “And he’s going out there and he’s showing he’s trying to become a better person.”
That’s what Ann Loomis sees, too. Roethlisberger began attending her church last summer, and she calls him “just a regular guy going to church.”
“Professionally, I think the cockiness that was attributed to him is no longer there,” she said. “You can see a genuine person who loves what he does.”