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Big Ben and redemption

June 17, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
A few years ago, I wrote a lot of pretty mean stuff about Ben Roethlisberger in the wake of the accusations over his alleged conduct in a drunken night in Georgia.

And, while I stand by those comments because I stand behind my apparently old-fashioned belief that pro athletes should live up to some higher standard in return for all the adulation — and money — they earn, I do still leave room for redemption.

Roethlisberger impressed me with his speech Monday night at the Lou Holtz/Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame event at St. Florian Hall.

He claimed it was only his second time at public speaking, and the 700 (give or take) at St. Florian was his largest audience. He proclaimed a bit of nerves, but he proceeded, without a single note, to present a coherent speech about character, loyalty, hard work and leadership.

He was inspiring, funny and humble. And when he said he played hard as a kid after losing his mother in a car crash when he was only 8, “so she could be proud of me watching from heaven,” he surely sounded sincere. I also noticed that he really looks young. As in, barely older than my kids, which he barely is.

He recounted why he chose Miami of Ohio over Ohio State, and I related completely. Heck, my dad would have loved that story. Seems Ben met one John Cooper, then head coach of the Buckeyes and Cooper was all kinds of fired up about having the young QB come to Columbus.

A week later, out of context, Ben ran into the coach in the airport. Cooper didn’t know who Ben was. And thus, Ben decided the heck with OSU. His coach at Miami, Terry Hoeppner, had wanted Roethlisberger from the get-go of his explosive senior year in high school, and Roethlisberger thought that was the kind of confidence in him and loyalty that deserved respect.

He recounted how he always wanted to play football because his father had played and how he waited and waited until his senior year because his high school coach’s son was the quarterback until Ben’s senior year. He recounted how Hoeppner had been like a father, how he had been unselfish in not trying to talk Roethlisberger from entering the NFL draft during his junior year.

“I miss him every day,” Roethlisberger said of Hoeppner, who died of brain cancer in 2007.

He remembered when he first walked into the Steelers facilities and the first person he encountered was Jerome Bettis.

“He took my notebook, opened it and wrote ‘Bus’ and his phone number. He said to call for anything I want,” including advice on where to go or things to do in Pittsburgh.

“I never called. I mean, he’s The Bus,” Roethlisberger quipped. He says he does the same thing with his rookies. “They never call, either.”

But over the years, he developed a great relationship with Bettis, whom he calls “Bussie.”

And he didn’t forget being the rookie in Pittsburgh. The team had Tommy Maddox at QB, popular and successful. And it had the beloved Charlie Batch as the backup. Ben slotted in as the backup’s backup. And then Batch got hurt in training camp. Maddox got hurt in a regular season game against Baltimore and Roethlisberger went into the game, handed off the ball and figured he had his one play. Then he saw Maddox going into the locker room with the doctors. Tommy, he was told, might be back at halftime.

At halftime, a street-clothed Maddox was leaving for the hospital.

“Now I’m getting really nervous. I know when I go back out there, Ray Lewis is going to be over there talking trash at the rookie,” Roethlisberger said. He described Baltimore safety Ed Reed as having an uncanny ability to disappear and reappear in a different place.

“We lost on a very young mistake by me, but I still blame Bill Cowher for it,” he said with a smile. The next week, the team did Saturday evening study by flashlight following a power failure in their Miami hotel, and went on to win in a mudfest, and Roethlisberger was on his way.

They lost in the playoffs that year and Bettis contemplated retirement.

Big Ben recalled promising The Bus that if he stuck around one more year they’d win a Super Bowl. One gets a sense by Roethlisberger’s tone that it was more Ben the man to Jerome the man, not just a couple of football legends talking to one another. He recalled how he handed Bettis the game ball for each of the three playoff games and then for Super Bowl XL. The tears in Bettis’ eyes “meant everything to me,” he said.

He recalled making the tackle in the game against Indianapolis during that playoff run, when the always sure-handed Bettis fumbled. Roethlisberger said the play happened in slow motion before him, and all he could think was, “You cannot let Jerome go out like this. He’s too great a person.” Roethlisberger’s tackle preserved the playoff run (Indy missed the resulting field goal).

He joked about the day his nose was broken against Baltimore.

He said his leadership style is to watch from behind to determine who needs what kind of attention. A leader from the front might not see what’s going on behind him, Roethlisberger explained, but from the back, it’s easy to observe your people.

He didn’t stay after the event and I overheard a couple folks starting to complain but I figure he deserved a chance to head home after a very long day. He had been hosting his children’s football camp all day long prior to the Holtz dinner, and he had thrown about 500 passes to children.

I didn’t get to talk with him, but I got about three feet from him. He’s a kid, for cryin’ out loud. A big, well-dressed kid. A big, well-dressed kid whose hard-nosed, never-say-die style of play is absolutely fitting with who he is.

Maybe I need to keep that in mind. Hopefully, there never will be a next chance to question his character. He’s doing and saying all the right things now.


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