Unconditional love rains on Big Ben again

PITTSBURGH – They would not let Ben Roethlisberger(notes) go into the windblown night. The game was won and an icy rain swirled in the stadium lights. And still nobody left. The roar of 64,879 turned into an embrace wrapping itself around the Steelers quarterback, holding him as close as a field and walls would allow.

Nobody wanted to let go.

And Pittsburgh loved him again.

It was less than six months ago that he stood nervously in the gymnasium at St. Vincent’s College in nearby Latrobe, terrified at what awaited him from the gantlet of fans lined up on the first day of training camp. It was a day he sought comfort from Hines Ward(notes), his best receiver and biggest critic, aware his behavior had turned into a problem, that a police report from Milledgeville, Ga., was so awful that he had broken the most absolute of affections: that Steelers fan love.

But they did cheer him anyway that day, just as they stood and waved and clapped on Saturday as he tried to finish an interview with the CBS announcers. A technician grumbled that the noise was too loud for the audio to be heard. Nobody cared. A fan held a sign that read: “No. 7 lead us to No. 7,” an allusion to the six Super Bowls the Steelers have already won.

Roethlisberger must have seen it behind the television camera. He nodded that way.

This has been the season of reclaimed quarterbacks in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with most of autumn’s attention turned to Michael Vick(notes) in Philadelphia. Yet, this past spring the disgust for Roethlisberger ran deeper than for anyone in the NFL. There was a news conference after the police report and the team’s owner Dan Rooney looked sickened enough that it wasn’t a certainty Roethlisberger would be allowed to stay with the team he twice led to Super Bowl titles.

Still they kept him, even after the league suspended him for what turned out to be the first four games of the season. They kept him because he said he would change, because he said he would be a better person and because of moments like the one late in Saturday's game when on a third-and-19 from his own 38-yard line he heaved a long pass to rookie receiver Antonio Brown(notes) that went for 58 yards and set up the game-winning touchdown that came seconds later.

No other quarterback in the NFL can make this play, not regularly, not when the situation is dire and the game is in jeopardy. It is why he gets another opportunity after the allegations of sexual assault and the stories of extreme arrogance and boorish behavior – an opportunity a lesser player might never have received. Winning does this sometimes.

“You don’t let him walk out the door,” longtime Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El(notes) said as he dressed after the game. “This is what you get, plays like that. This team has rallied around him and people around the world have supported him. He makes things happen.”

Then Randle El paused.

“He’s a different person, no doubt about that,” he said.

It didn’t take much to win Pittsburgh back. This is the ultimate football town, and no matter how furious people were in the spring, they had to know their best chance to keep winning Super Bowls lay in the hands of their quarterback disparaged. He was the one who always pulled out the big games and delivered playoff victories. So while they publicly scorned him for whatever happened with the woman in the bar, they secretly hoped he would indeed be changed – at least enough to let them cheer through the coldest weekends.

Now with the word that he is not the man of the past spring, publicly stripped of the hubris that seemed to control his life, Pittsburgh is free to love again. And so on Saturday it did.

He smiled through his on-field television interview, just as he did later in his news conference in a room beneath the stands. When the announcers were done with him and he pulled off the headset, he walked toward the locker room. He was alone, only a line of photographers in front of him. A great roar spilled down around. He smiled some more. He waved to the fans on the other side of the field and they waved back.

Later, in the locker room, away from the corner where Roethlisberger enthusiastically agreed to film a small announcement for an Asian television network – the kind of thing that would have been once unthinkable – Rooney shook his head.

“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to,” said the owner who once appeared to have had enough of Ben Roethlisberger. “He’s grown up. We kept him here because it was the right thing to do.”

For winning?

Rooney shook his head.

“It’s more than that,” he replied. “It was the right thing to do to give him a chance to help him grow up.”

Then Rooney smiled.

“It worked out tonight didn’t it?” he asked.

Everything was right again between Pittsburgh and the quarterback who tried his best to break the city’s heart.