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Gorman: Spadafora knows Big Ben's woes

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, April 2, 2010

He won a championship and became the toast of the town in his early 20s before being seduced by the spoils of fortune and fame and an incident that irrecoverably damaged his image.

Ben Roethlisberger•

Try Paul Spadafora.

Both the Steelers quarterback and McKees Rocks boxer were 23 years old when they won a championship — Spadafora the International Boxing Federation lightweight belt, Roethlisberger at Super Bowl XL — only to watch their world spiral out of control five years later.

This isn't to compare the charges against them. Where Spadafora served prison time for shooting his then-girlfriend in October 2003, Roethlisberger has faced only accusations — not criminal charges — of sexual assault.

But there are alarming parallels in their peaks in popularity and precipitous fall out of favor after incidents involving alcohol and women during the prime of their athletic careers.

Spadafora has advice for Roethlisberger, a man he has never met.

"I would say stay the (expletive) away from alcohol and clubs," said Spadafora, now 34. "You're the quarterback of the Steelers. People love you. You stay away, and you won't have problems like this. You can't go to the clubs. I don't go to the 'hood bars anymore. I'm scared to go there. You never know what can happen. It's hard to tell someone that when you're a young gun."

Spadafora is quick to note that he won't judge Roethlisberger without knowing all the facts — "Who knows what happened, except him and her?" — and doesn't pretend to know the level of stardom the $102 million quarterback either enjoys or endures, depending on your perspective.

"He's making millions of dollars. His level is, like, whoa!" Spadafora said. "People look at him and see money. They read about it. I can just imagine the kind of women problems he has. Let's face it: He's a quarterback. This guy don't even look good, and the girls love him.

"That would be terrible if it threatened his career like that. Just say he gets banned for a year. That's going to (mess) him up, no matter how you look at it. I can relate to being in the prime of your life and you make a mistake and it's taken away from you — just like that."

Spadafora enjoyed a five-year run as world champion, including eight title defenses, was celebrated as the city's first boxing champion since Billy Conn and dubbed the modern-day "Pittsburgh Kid."

"It's overwhelming," he said. "You're used to people treating you a certain way. Now people are treating you a different way. Everybody wants to be your friend. All the girls like you. Now you get out of the pocket with one of these strangers and things like that happen. You end up in the paper and people say, 'He's a piece of crap.' It changes your whole perspective."

Spadafora said he thinks Pittsburghers will be more forgiving of Big Ben.

"He's with the Steelers," Spadafora said. "They're die-hard football fans."

Spadafora doesn't hide his regrets. Only a few months after relinquishing his IBF belt, he was arrested for shooting Nadine Russo during what Spadafora calls an alcohol-induced blackout. He later pleaded guilty to reduced charges of aggravated assault and firearms possession and saw his hometown turn on him. One fan told Spadafora that he removed the boxer's picture from his daughter's bedroom.

"That's sad," Spadafora said. "Your real fans — straight boxing fans — they don't change. But the average person who don't know you, that changes the way they think of you. I don't get looked at the same as I did when I was the champion. I made that mistake, chose to put myself in that situation."

Spadafora blames it all on alcohol, not his troubled childhood or that he was a high school dropout who ran the streets. It's easy to come to the conclusion, correct or not, that he was a product of his environment.

How do we explain Roethlisberger's reportedly boorish behavior• By all accounts, he comes from a good family and a small Midwestern town with strong values and received a college education at Miami (Ohio) University.

"It don't matter where you're from," Spadafora said. "I wish something like that didn't have to happen before you realize what you can and can't do."

Roethlisberger is probably wishing the same thing.

And hoping it's not too late.

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