Steelers' Roethlisberger thriving on the field, in the game of life

| Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, 7:51 p.m.

Two weeks ago, it appeared the Steelers had no hope.

They had just lost to a bad Baltimore Ravens team and were relegated to relying on others to determine their postseason fate.

It was fortunate for the Steelers that they had the perfect guy to lead the way — Ben Roethlisberger. He had done it before, but for much higher stakes than a spot in the NFL's postseason.

The previous struggles were for his image, his legacy and his livelihood and — just like last week when the Steelers' playoff hopes were hanging in the balance — Roethlisberger got a lot of help to turn a once seemingly hopeless situation into a success story.

It has been five years since Roethlisberger endured off-the-field turmoil involving sexual-assault allegations in Nevada and Georgia. Some will refuse to forget, particularly in Cincinnati where Roethlisberger steps onto the field Saturday for an AFC wild-card game against the Bengals. In advance of the game, AM radio station 700-WLW issued a “Big Ben rape warning” spoof, alerting women in the city to Roethlisberger's presence.

Yet, as the 12-year veteran is set to start his 16th career playoff game after battling through an injury-plagued season, Roethlisberger, 33, is considered one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. But perhaps more important, he says he is a family man, a changed man. He is active in the community and his church.

“To see him grow as a person and a leader is rewarding in our eyes,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said.

“When the Georgia allegations came, he clearly said, ‘Enough is enough, and I don't want to be defined like that. My name attached to allegations like this is embarrassing for my family, friends, the Steelers,' ” said Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner.

Roethlisberger's plan: Say nothing and do everything.

“I think the biggest tell of a person is how you grow and how you change your life and make yourself better from it,” Roethlisberger told the Tribune-Review earlier this season. “Do you improve yourself or go backward? I wanted to learn from everything I have been through my entire life to make me who I am so it can be passed on to my children.”

(Not) in for a good fight

Roethlisberger despises letting people down.

With an “entourage” lifestyle, Roethlisberger let a lot of people down when he was younger, Tollner said. It went across the board, too, with the way he acted off the field, the way he treated people, with his sense of entitlement.

“It was sort of a blend of early success in his career combined with an unusually high profile, because of how Steelers players are treated,” Tollner said. “He could go anywhere and meet anybody, and he thought it was OK to take advantage of that. He was able to meet his idols like Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter and view them as peers. He had friends he liked to travel with, and most of this party scene embraced him. It is the part he looks back on and regrets and realizes it was immature.”

Roethlisberger could have denounced the accusations. He could have denounced Goodell for suspending him for six games — later reduced to four — despite never being arrested or charged. But he didn't. That was his choice.

“(Roethlisberger) didn't want to do any public media campaign to win people over,” Tollner said. “This is going to take time to earn back the trust of public opinion. He was going to be him and true to what he is about. He just said enough is enough.”

Anthony Fernandez, CEO/president of Athlete Brand Management, said Roethlisberger repairing his reputation is a remarkable transformation.

“He actually repaired his image by saying nothing, and that's partly because he didn't want to feed into the media frenzy that you see goes on with social media today,” Fernandez said. “He went the opposite direction of the typical athlete who says too much and incriminates himself.”

The Steelers took a chance on Roethlisberger after the second sexual misconduct allegations and the subsequent suspension. There were reports that Steelers president Art Rooney II shopped around the franchise quarterback to whom he just had given $108 million two years earlier.

Tollner said he doesn't know whether those reports were true, but he knew the Steelers weren't happy.

“When that second allegation happened, I think the Steelers were pretty unsure what to do,” Tollner said. “Their image, based around their set of values, is very important to them.”

Rooney had a couple of “heart-to-heart” conversations with Roethlisberger and said he heard what he needed to hear: Roethlisberger said he was going to change.

“I don't ever recall saying ‘one more chance' or anything like that,” Rooney said. “I never got to the point where I thought about giving up on him. I thought we knew him well enough and knew his family and what kind of person he was and how he was raised. He made mistakes, but we always had confidence that he was somebody who could turn himself around and mature and grow, and that's what he did.”

“You see players (who) have extended careers because usually they can square the life away off the field,” Colbert said. “If they are chasing troubles off the field, they usually don't have great careers. They flame out sooner than the other guys.”

Family matters

Three dates, it could be argued, set Roethlisberger on his path to redemption: July 23, 2011, when he married Ashley Harlan; Nov. 21, 2012, when his son was born; and March 19, 2014, when his daughter was born.

“You see a different light in him now,” guard Ramon Foster said. “You have a guy who understands and experienced that going down that alley isn't a good thing.”

Starting a family has had the greatest impact.

“We are all by nature selfish people,” Roethlisberger said. “When you have a child, you can't be [selfish] because that child needs you. As adults, we are self-sufficient. We can take care of ourselves. A child can't take care of itself. You have to put your ego aside and yourself aside, and be second when you have children.”

There was no more time for parties and guys' nights out. Instead, there were diapers to be changed or visits to his parents or in-laws.

“His priorities are clear,” Tollner said.

Faith, family and football are what Roethlisberger lives by.

“I might not be the top quarterback, but that's OK,” Roethlisberger said, “because I am winning life right now.”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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