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Steelers' Roethlisberger stands by promise

| Friday, July 22, 2011

Among testimonials to Ben Roethlisberger's vowed change in behavior and image, the Rev. Bruce Cote's stands above the rest.

"In a day and age when it is so much easier to go down a different road, Ben has chosen to go God's way," said Cote, senior associate pastor and interim lead pastor at Christ Church at Grove Farm in Ohio Township. "He sets a wonderful example for children. He is a good role model, and he is doing it God's way. He has proven he has changed."

Roethlisberger plans to marry New Castle native Ashley Harlan, 26, on Saturday at Christ Church, almost seven years after he burst onto the Pittsburgh scene as the Steelers' rookie quarterback — and set the stage for his rise and fall from grace.

Had people been polled a year ago about the least likely things to happen in 2011, Roethlisberger getting married probably would have fallen somewhere between the Pirates becoming baseball's hottest story and Facebook driving a revolution in Egypt.

His image had been tarnished and his career put in jeopardy after a second sexual assault allegation in two years. He vowed to change.

Based on interviews with friends and critics, it seems as though Roethlisberger has made good on his promise.

The Steelers have generated troubling headlines this offseason. None have come because of Roethlisberger.

"I wasn't making changes for other people," Roethlisberger said. "I was doing it for myself. Just wanted to do the right things and be the person that I know who I am and can be."

Roethlisberger and Harlan became engaged at the end of 2010 after an on-and-off, five-year courtship.

The man who once dated celebrities such as LPGA golfer Natalie Gulbis and actress Missy Peregrym chuckled when asked recently what constitutes a night of fun now.

"Watching TV, watching movies," he said. "I hang out with the guys and stuff, but I spend a lot of time either here or at my parents' (house outside of Pittsburgh) and hunting and just doing little odds and ends, things around the house."

Ben Roethlisberger, a homebody?

It beats what people called him 16 months ago after he was accused of sexually assaulting a college student in Milledgeville, Ga. That followed allegations — and a still-pending civil lawsuit — that he sexually assaulted a casino worker in Lake Tahoe, Nev.

Authorities did not charge Roethlisberger in either incident, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for six games — it was later reduced to four — at the start of last season.

That's a world ago, said Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel, one of Roethlisberger's closest friends on the team.

"He's in a great place right now," Keisel said. "He is more upbeat, and I think he has life figured out and where he wants to go and who he wants to be. It's good to see that as a friend. He's been to hell and back."

'It really seems like he's turned it around'

Local restaurateur Mark Baranowski serves as a barometer in gauging progress Roethlisberger has made in rehabilitating his image.

Baranowski ripped Roethlisberger in a May 2010 Sports Illustrated cover story titled "The Hangover" for the do-you-know-who-I-am behavior he said Roethlisberger routinely exhibited at his Wexford tavern, The Cabana Bar.

Rather than experience fan backlash, Baranowski said people approached him with their own stories about Roethlisberger behaving badly.

Baranowski said he still hears stories about Roethlisberger. But they are different now.

"I've been hearing all good," said Baranowski, who also owns the North Park Lounge restaurants in Cranberry and McCandless.

Baranowski said Roethlisberger ate dinner at his McCandless restaurant late last summer. The two-time Super Bowl winner signed autographs and was a "perfect gentleman."

"I don't have anything bad to say," Baranowski said. "It really seems like he's turned it around."

Image experts generally agree.

"It seems like Ben made really good strides in one year to improve the way people perceive him," said Darin David, an account director for The Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based sports consulting firm. "Whether that was calculated or came as a result of soul-searching, it's hard to know."

The strides Roethlisberger has made aren't reflected in his popularity, according to David's firm.

Roethlisberger's awareness among consumers jumped from 55.6 percent in August 2009 to 76.2 percent in March, but his appeal declined dramatically during that period, according to The Marketing Arm.

Eighty-two percent of consumers who knew of Roethlisberger in August 2009 liked him to some degree. That had dipped to 54 percent in March.

There is an element of cynicism that has come with Roethlisberger's changes. That, in part, is because they have been so drastic but also because Roethlisberger has followed "the P.R. handbook as far as what you need to do when you get in that difficult situation," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.

Rick Kaiser, 62, of Neville Island, said he would "give it another year" before believing the changes Roethlisberger has made are genuine.

"He didn't have a choice but to change," Kaiser said.

"For his sake, I hope he did (change)," said Jennifer Matejka, 40, of Independence Township. "He represents Pittsburgh. He needs to walk on eggshells."

Roethlisberger has acknowledged that rebuilding his image — and regaining fans' trust — is an extensive process that comes with time and actions beyond beating the Baltimore Ravens in January.

"People say, 'Oh, you've made these changes,' " Roethlisberger said. "I'm just living my life and being me."

Roethlisberger told the Tribune-Review in September — three days before Goodell reduced his suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy — that he had returned to his roots and his faith.

Ten months later, Roethlisberger said religion is as important to him as ever.

"I feel like my faith has gotten even strong than where it was before," he said. "I love my church and the church family."

Marriage, then fatherhood?

Roethlisberger and Harlan became members of Christ Church of Grove Farm about a year ago and regularly attend when in town, Cote said.

Roethlisberger credits the parish with helping him get back on track after an oversized sense of entitlement turned him into the stereotypical self-indulged professional athlete.

"He took on a change with a humble approach, as far as learning that maybe I wasn't the best guy, I wasn't the best teammate, I wasn't the best person at times," Steelers right tackle Willie Colon said. "I think he's made an extremely conscious effort of being more up and up to guys on the team, being more vocal, off the field being more humble to people that are around him."

Roethlisberger still is fiercely competitive, even when shooting balls of tape into a garbage can with teammates before and after practices.

But he also is thinking about more than just games these days. He wants to become a father.

"It's supposedly one of the greatest things that could ever happen," Roethlisberger said.

First things first: the wedding. A new chapter in Roethlisberger's life — and a symbol, according to those closest to him, of how different a place he is in compared to a year ago.

"I'm very comfortable, and I'm at peace," Roethlisberger said. "I'm happy with who I am."

Roethlisberger timeline

Here is a look at Ben Roethlisberger's highs and lows since the Steelers took him 11th overall in the 2004 NFL draft:

Sept. 26, 2004: Making his first NFL start, Roethlisberger throws for 163 yards and a TD, as the Steelers beat the Dolphins, 13-3, in Miami.

Dec. 26, 2004: Roethlisberger throws for 221 yards and TD in beating the Ravens and becoming first QB in NFL history to go 13-0 in the regular season.

Feb. 5, 2006: Doesn't have his best game, but Steelers beat Seattle Seahawks in Detroit, making Roethlisberger, at age 23, the youngest QB to win a Super Bowl.

June 12, 2006: Roethlisberger is seriously injured after he collides with a car on Second Avenue while riding his motorcycle. He undergoes successful surgery to repair multiple facial fractures, as fans hold vigil outside of hospital.

Oct. 29, 2006: A week after suffering a concussion, Roethlisberger throws four INTs for the first time in his career, as the Steelers lose to the lowly Raiders in Oakland.

Sept 9, 2007: Roethlisberger throws four TDs, as Steelers rout Browns in coach Mike Tomlin's debut; he goes on to set Steelers' single-season record with 32 TD passes.

Feb 1, 2009: Roethlisberger caps an eight-play, 78-yard drive near the end of Super Bowl XLIII with a for-the-ages TD pass to Santonio Holmes in corner of the end zone. The 27-23 victory makes him only the 10th QB to win multiple Super Bowls.

July 23, 2009: Roethlisberger, reading a statement at the Steelers' South Side practice facility, denies an accusation that he sexually assaulted a casino worker the previous year in Lake Tahoe, Nev.; the women named Roethlisberger in a civil lawsuit less than a week earlier.

Dec. 20, 2009: Roethlisberger throws for a franchise-record 503 yards, and his 19-yard TD pass on final play of the game gives the Steelers a pulsating 37-36 win over the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field.

March 5, 2010: Roethlisberger is accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in the bathroom of a Milledgeville, Ga., nightclub.

April 13, 2010: Ocmulgee District Attorney Fred Bright announces that criminal charges won't be filed against Roethlisberger but chides the QB, saying he needed to "grow up."

April 21, 2010: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspends Roethlisberger for first six games of the 2010 season and orders him to undergo a comprehensive behavioral evaluation.

Sept. 3, 2010: Goodell reduces suspension four games because of good behavior.

Oct. 17, 2010: Returning to largely cheers at Heinz Field, Roethlisberger throws for 257 yards and three TDs in 28-10 win over the Browns.

Dec. 5, 2010: Playing through a broken nose suffered early in the game, Roethlisberger throws a 9-yard TD pass late in the fourth quarter as the Steelers beat the Ravens in Baltimore.

Jan 4, 2011: Roethlisberger sidesteps a question of whether he is engaged, telling reporters he doesn't talk about his personal life; it later comes out Roethlisberger is engaged to New Castle native Ashley Harlan.

Feb. 1, 2011: With a chance to lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XLV, Roethlisberger and the offense manage one first down before turning the ball over on downs in a 31-25 loss to the Packers.

July 13, 2011: In excerpts released from Men's Journal story on James Harrison, the Steelers outside linebacker is critical of Roethlisberger's performance in the Super Bowl loss.

July 23, 2011: Roethlisberger and Harlan are scheduled to marry.

— Tribune-Review reporter JoAnne Klimovich Harrop contributed to this report.

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