ARLINGTON, Texas – They were face-to-face now in the bowels of Cowboys Stadium, outside Locker Room C that Fox Sports had converted into an interview room. Here on Tuesday morning was the great Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback of the past (Terry Bradshaw) and the present (Ben Roethlisberger(notes)), and absolutely no one knew what was going to happen next.
The relationship between the two was toxic.
Last March, Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in Milledgeville, Ga. When news broke, Bradshaw began shredding him in a series of interviews, even suggesting that if the Steelers original owner, Art Rooney, was still alive Roethlisberger would've been shipped out of town.
"I think Terry spoke a little too soon, before he knew all the facts," Roethlisberger said Tuesday of an incident that led to no legal charges but ultimately a four-game NFL suspension.
Of all the criticism that rained down on him, Bradshaw's repeated eviscerations may have stung the most.
"I've got two girls," Bradshaw said of his 21- and 23-year-old daughters. "And anybody that is involved in mistreating women, it doesn't sit well with me. I don't know all the facts. Maybe I rushed to judgment too quickly. But it was just because it was the second time [Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in 2008 also].
"That influenced my hostility because if that happened to my little girls …" Bradshaw couldn't even finish the thought.
This is what Roethlisberger has wrought. This is what Roethlisberger must repair. He may not have been charged with a crime in Georgia, but his actions were boorish and ugly. It crystallized his reputation as a low-life who just happened to be blessed with a strong arm.
The quarterback has spent this Super Bowl week trying to tell people he is a changed man as he prepares for Super Bowl XLV on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. Now staring into the face of Bradshaw he would have a chance to show it to perhaps his greatest critic.
The two hadn't spoken in person since the incident. According to Bradshaw, Roethlisberger refused to shake his hand at Steelers training camp last summer, a scene Bradshaw described as "icy cold." Their only interaction was a brief, shallow interview during Sunday's Pro Bowl telecast.
"He doesn't like me, and I'm learning not to like him," Bradshaw said last offseason.
Now Bradshaw wanted a sit-down interview and no one knew what Roethlisberger would do. The old Ben may have walked away. Or screamed in Bradshaw's face. Or slugged someone. Who knows? "We weren't sure he would sit down with me," Bradshaw said. "Everyone was nervous."
The normally unflappable Fox Sports crew was on edge. Well, everyone except for Bradshaw, who still maintains his cool-in-the-pocket-demeanor.
"Terry was calming me down," co-host Howie Long said.
Bradshaw was going to try to defuse the entire situation, approaching Roethlisberger immediately. "Terry wanted to talk to me," Roethlisberger said. "He pulled me aside."
Inside Locker Room C they went. It was set up for an interview but in order to clear the air, Bradshaw cleared the place out. Cameramen, sound technicians, producers and everyone else was told to leave. Fox producer Scott Ackerson had come up with the idea that if Roethlisberger was willing to speak to Bradshaw at all, they should first do it alone, man-to-man, eye-to-eye, Steeler-to-Steeler. If peace could be reached, then they'd turn on the cameras.
"Take everyone else out of the room, let the two of us sit down and have a talk," Bradshaw said. "And if you want to get it off your chest, get it off."
They went back and forth for a few minutes, Bradshaw said. The bad blood had dated back to Bradshaw criticizing Roethlisberger for getting in a 2006 motorcycle accident. Some in the Roethlisberger camp believed Bradshaw was unduly harsh on Roethlisberger because he feared his record of four Super Bowl championships was in jeopardy.
Then came that drunken night in Georgia that left Bradshaw convinced he was right all along.
Roethlisberger didn't provide any new facts about the case, according to Bradshaw. They both aired their various points of view. Roethlisberger was seeking fairness, perspective and understanding. He was asking for a second chance. He kept addressing his elder as "Sir" and "Mr. Bradshaw."
Bradshaw, meanwhile, wanted Roethlisberger to know he wasn't jealous and he wanted him to break all his records. He then defended his role as tell-it-like-it-is television analyst.
"I did say to him, that for my comments, if I feel it's necessary to say I'm sorry, 'I'm sorry,' " Bradshaw said. "But basically I'm just doing my job. I don't want to hurt anybody. I'm just in an unfortunate business where if you ask me a question I have to answer it honestly and if I don't answer it truthfully then I'm not respected."
According to Bradshaw, Roethlisberger was both humble about his failures and hopeful about his future. There are many people who don't believe the sincerity of either of those things and, at one point, Bradshaw was probably the chief among them. Somewhere in that converted locker room, he changed his mind.
"Of course people say, 'Oh, it's not real,'" Bradshaw said. "I think it's totally real."
Time will tell, which is what Roethlisberger says he understands. "Just keep plugging away," he said of proving himself to the public. Stay out of trouble and do the right thing and perhaps, one day, the focus on him won't be about the mistakes he's made. It's up to the people though. He isn't owed forgiveness.
If fans seek signs of progress, of maturity, then maybe this is a small one. Last summer Ben Roethlisberger wouldn't shake Terry Bradshaw's hand, too much anger getting in the way of reconciliation. Tuesday, the two Steelers legends ended their discussion with a hug.
"We just both came to the conclusion that we're Steelers, we're part of that family," Bradshaw said. "And I encouraged him that yesterday is yesterday and that I have his back and I support him 100 percent.
"But if he screws up again … I'll do it again."
- Terry Bradshaw