Roethlisberger's hometown looks for facts
By Scott Brown
Published: Thursday, March 11, 2010
FINDLAY, Ohio — A tree-lined street leads into the city that is tucked in the northwest corner of the state. It yields no clues that this is the childhood home of a quarterback who won a pair of Super Bowls before his 27th birthday.
The one place in the veritable portrait of middle class America that qualifies as a public shrine to Ben Roethlisberger is Tony's Restaurant & Pub. On a wall leading into the popular eatery that sells the "Big Ben Burger" is a framed Steelers jersey signed by Roethlisberger. Also hanging from the wall is a collage of pictures, several of which were taken in 2004 — before Roethlisberger set an NFL record by winning his first 13 starts.
Roethlisberger sports closely cropped hair and a lean physique in those photos. The clean-cut, All-American look is at odds with the image that has emerged following the second sexual assault accusation brought against Roethlisberger in the past nine months.
"What he's really guilty of is making some bad decisions," said Tony Iriti, who coached Roethlisberger in football and baseball growing up and now lives in Roethlisberger's old house. "It's really tough because I know Ben. To hear these kinds of accusations ..."
The latest one came last week following a night of bar-hopping in a Georgia college town, not far from where Roethlisberger owns an offseason home. The investigation could lead to criminal charges and comes while a civil suit filed last July against Roethlisberger in Nevada is still pending.
What hasn't taken place in Findlay — Roethlisberger moved here with his parents while still in grade school and became a three-sport star — is a rush to judgment, Iriti said.
The town's muted response may best be reflected in The Courier, Findlay's newspaper. A day after law enforcement officials in Milledgeville, Ga., announced they would continue to investigate the alleged incident, The Courier ran the story on the front page — of its sports section.
Wednesday, the newspaper didn't carry any new developments in the Roethlisberger story.
"Here, people don't talk about it," said Iriti, who served one term as Findlay's mayor starting in 2004. "People here have very strong faith. Wait until all of the facts come out."
That is not to say the subject has been taboo here.
Dick Hipsher, a lifelong Findlay resident, said he and his morning coffee friends have talked about Roethlisberger's situation. The sentiment among the group is not much different than in Pittsburgh — most at least agree that Roethlisberger has too much to lose to put himself in situations that can cost him everything.
"I said: 'You know when you see this happen, I consider it a lack of intelligence,' " said Hipsher, a retired purchaser.
Ask people who know Roethlisberger here, and they'll tell you he is an unrelenting competitor. They'll also talk about how Roethlisberger and his sister, Carlee, were raised right by their parents Ken and Brenda. Ken played college football at Georgia Tech but was the antithesis of the Little League parent.
He often watched Ben's baseball games from the outfield, friends say, so he could stay in the background.
There also are stories, just as in Pittsburgh, about two sides of Roethlisberger.
In November, Roethlisberger donated signed items for a fundraiser held for a Findlay man who has since died of pancreatic cancer. Roethlisberger also stages an annual celebrity basketball game at Findlay High School — there doesn't seem to be a lot of optimism that it will happen this year — with proceeds going to the athletic department.
Roethlisberger's foundation is a part of an initiative to build a complex with four practice fields and a locker room for Findlay's youth football program.
"He's a good kid," Iriti said.
Iriti is still close friends with the Roethlisbergers; his son and Ben Roethlisberger went to Miami (Ohio) on football scholarships.
Findlay, which carries itself with a small-town sensibility and actually has a restaurant named "Mom and Pop's," doesn't offer much refuse from the fame that trails Roethlisberger as closely as his shadow.
When Roethlisberger is back in Findlay and he goes to Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant, assistant manager Tim Bethel said the place fills up as soon as word spreads that he is there. The same is true of Tony's, which sells the hamburgers named in Roethlisberger's honor and consist of two large meat patties, lettuce, tomatoes and the house barbecue sauce. Cheese comes with the burger for an extra seven cents.
Connie Tagliapietra, an assistant manager at Tony's, said Roethlisberger is good about signing for fans when he's at the restaurant.
Tagliapietra's brother in law, Tom Brown, owns Tony's. The restaurant has catered private parties Roethlisberger has hosted in Pittsburgh.
"I really like him," said Tagliapietra, who has known Roethlisberger since he was in high school.
Tagliapietra said she tunes out any talk she hears about Roethlisberger's latest troubles. Bethel hopes that Roethlisberger learns from them.
"When you are in his situation, there's a time to go home," said Bethel, adding that Roethlisberger has never been a problem when he has visited Buffalo Wild Wings. "When you're famous, you've just go to know when to call it quits. Maybe he needs to grow up a little bit and deal with his fame in other ways."
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