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Ohio towns still have lots of love for Big Ben

| Sunday, March 28, 2010

OXFORD, Ohio — One day last July in Lake Tahoe, Nev., Ned Stephenson could tell something was awry with Ben Roethlisberger.

Stephenson, the owner of the Bagel and Deli Shop here in this quintessential college town, the home of Miami University, was attending a celebrity golf tournament, and Roethlisberger was playing in it.

A snapshot of the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and former Miami star sticks to the wall of Stephenson's restaurant, an Oxford institution for nearly 37 years on High Street, the busy main drag. The two have known each other since Roethlisberger arrived on campus in 2000, and Stephenson wanted to say hello.

"I could tell by Ben's demeanor that he didn't want to talk to anybody," he said.

Stephenson said that was the day the public learned of a civil lawsuit filed against Roethlisberger by a hotel worker, who claims he raped her during the same event a year earlier in Lake Tahoe. An emotional Roethlisberger denied the allegation at a news conference.

The lawsuit marked the beginning of Roethlisberger's legal problems as well as the erosion of his public image. That image took another hit this month when a 20 year-old college student claimed Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her in the dingy restroom of a Milledgeville, Ga., nightclub. Law enforcement is investigating the allegation, which the quarterback's attorney has denied.

The sordid nature of the allegations has troubled the Steelers organization, fans and those who watched Roethlisberger grow up.

Growing up in Findlay, Ohio and then moving to Oxford, Roethlisberger, 28, by all accounts avoided trouble. Now he faces potential criminal charges, suspension by the NFL and ridicule from the national media. In recent weeks, the two-time Super Bowl champion has been the butt of jokes on Jay Leno and a mocking episode of "South Park."

Jon Wauford, a former Miami assistant who recruited Roethlisberger, said that based on his knowledge of Roethlisberger as a young man, what he has been hearing is "not in character" for him.

"He was in our backyard, in our kitchen," said Tim Brudgeman of Findlay, director of the Hancock Parks District. "Our daughter double-dated with him. What a gentleman. There are crazy kids out there doing stupid things. He wasn't like that."

Some believe Roethlisberger is the victim in these allegations of sexual assault.

"We feel he's probably being taken advantage of financially, and he's being targeted," Brugeman said.

Oxford attorney Daniel Haughey, said: "Guys that are high-profile are often lightning rods for these things to happen."

In the decade since he advanced from high school star to elite NFL quarterback, the image and perception of Roethlisberger has changed -- and not all for the better. He remains beloved in his hometown, where he visits and sponsors a charity basketball game, but the stories about him have caused some distress.

"He always handled himself so well that I thought something like this could never happen to him," said veteran Findlay Courier sportswriter Dave Hanneman, who wrote extensively of Roethlisberger during his prep career. "Even in high school. He did everything the right way. That's what baffles me most of all. He's damaging his career and his reputation."

In Oxford, where Roethlisberger and his entourage visit a couple of times a year, he seems to have alienated some in a community that once adored him. And it has nothing to do with the allegations of the two women..

"It's kind of sad what's happened to him," said Josh Hernandez, a bartender at the Smokin' Ox barbeque restaurant. "He lost his reputation in town even before the first allegation."

Dean Horn, who lives nearby in West College Corner, Ind., claims Roethlisberger cursed at his girlfriend in front of his young daughter after he was asked to sign a couple of helmets after playing golf.

"He normally has a reputation of coming to town and being a jackass to everyone," Horn said. "He won't sign autographs. He's rude. He's just too big for the fans."

Jake Korineck, a bartender at Mac and Joes's, has heard the negative comments and rejects them. Korineck said part of that perception results from the attention Roethlisberger gets when he visits.

"I know when he's in town, it's the biggest deal in Oxford," said Korineck, a Miami ball boy during Roethlisberger's record-setting junior year. "I think he's getting a bad name. Being a superstar, sometimes it gets old. There have been times where he's eating and people still ask him for autographs. I can see how anybody would be annoyed by that.

"This town is small. If you get a negative perception, it just spreads. But I think it's kind of (expletive) that people perceive him like that. We're not in his shoes. . . .But he's still young. He's still single. Why not go out and party• He might be a little crazy, but he's living the life."

Miami University, known as the "Cradle of Coaches," experienced a football revival under Roethlisberger, posting its best record ever in 2003. The following spring, the Steelers took Roethlisberger with the 11th pick in the NFL draft.

"We're mainly a (Cincinnati) Bengals city, but a lot of Steelers' jerseys have come out," Haughey said. "People are disappointed to hear his name brought up this way. But at the same time, they want to give him the benefit of the doubt."

According to court records and those familiar with how things work in Oxford, there is no evidence of off-field problems with Roethlisberger during his time here. Likewise, in Findlay, Roethlisberger appears to have been the model citizen.

"Ben was generally thought of in a very positive light," said Haughey, a county judge and adjunct professor at Miami whose firm handles cases involving athletes. "I never heard any negatives, and it's hard to keep skeletons in a closet here."

Stephenson said Roethlisberger was seen out and about in town during his first two years, but after he got more serious about developing his football abilities, "you never saw him."

According to Haughey, where some universities often hide athletes' off-field transgressions or make them mysteriously disappear, Miami does not afford special treatment.

"Football players are not the gods of High Street," he said. "They're not gonna be afforded any breaks."

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