Big Ben's tall task

Like the thousands of athletes before him who have found themselves in compromising positions and been handed a second chance, Ben Roethlisberger(notes) says he has changed. He has said this repeatedly in the months after that spring night in Georgia where a woman alleged something happened in the restroom and an ensuing Georgia Bureau of Investigation report painted a portrait of an athlete run amok.

He said he had fallen into the trap of being a character named "Big Ben." Big Ben was lewd. Big Ben was loud. Big Ben tore up the town. Big Ben made people hate him.

He said he had to "make better decisions." Then he said he did. He said he shed "Big Ben" in favor of a more moderate personality. One quiet and trustworthy. One determined to win back a trust that had been shattered.

And it worked. This week, as the rest of the sports world churns with the latest Brett Favre(notes) rumors and the memories of Michael Vick's(notes) MVP-like start to the year still dance in the air, Roethlisberger has slipped back from his suspension almost unnoticed. Maybe this says something about Pittsburgh's gargantuan capacity for forgiveness. Perhaps it's an indictment of a culture that can't think past the next scandal and has already forgotten the TV trucks camped outside the Steelers complex for days.

Or maybe Roethlisberger has indeed changed.

If nothing else, Favre and Vick have made it easy for Roethlisberger to escape attention. Favre dominates the headlines these days and Vick was so good in the season's first four weeks that there was no room for Roethlisberger in the conversation. While they have owned the news, Roethlisberger has been almost invisible.

"Obviously, I love football and I miss it more than anything. But to be away from the guys, my brothers, my family, that was one of the hardest parts," Roethlisberger said last week on the first day he was allowed back into the team's facility after his four-game suspension. "That's what made coming here today so great. I think every single one of the guys came up and gave me a hug."

He sounds contrite, and there are enough reasons to believe in Roethlisberger. He remains well-respected by his teammates. He has seemed more curious, more intellectual in recent months. His attorney, David Cornwell, said he was struck by the way Roethlisberger processes information in a "rectilinear approach," absorbing and then attacking things the way he does as a quarterback. He is not dumb, even if he's perceived that way at times. In fact, he has a quick mind. He gets what has happened to him. And he has acted as if he wants to change it.

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This summer at the Steelers first training camp practice, several hundred fans lined the path that makes a gauntlet from the locker room to the practice field. This is a Steelers tradition, a sort of football red carpet that greets the players before every public workout. It is one in which the players bask in the glow of undying adulation. And yet on that day there was unease in the throng.

Pittsburgh had not reacted well to the Georgia report. Pittsburgh, it turns out, had been having misgivings about Big Ben's behavior for some time. He had not won over the city despite winning two Super Bowls. There were too many stories of arguments, of boorish behavior, of an athlete so dripping with entitlement, for even the most loyal followers to ignore.

And there was a real fear he would be booed that day, something once unthinkable before that night in Georgia.

But as he made his way down the hill, receiver Hines Ward(notes) – a critic of Roethlisberger's behavior – by his side, the hill filled with cheers. Pittsburgh's capacity to forgive its own had been stretched again. It would give Roethlisberger another chance.

This became a popular sentiment in Pittsburgh.
(Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

He seemed to realize this that day and seized it. When practice ended, he chattered on in a news conference like none he had held before. He said all the same things about changing and hoping for a new beginning, but he said them with enthusiasm, with a smile, with a conviction that was different than what he had shown in the past.

Afterward he walked over to a set of stands and for the next half-hour signed everything thrust his way – shirts, caps, pictures, pennants. He pulled off both his shoes, autographed them and handed them to fans. He gave away his wristbands and practice jersey. He seemed almost relieved of a burden, that he was free of the Big Ben personality that had been pulling him down for years. He seemed, well … likeable.

And yet how are we to know if this is the real Roethlisberger? At the time he still had to impress Commissioner Roger Goodell enough with his behavior to get a six-game suspension reduced to four, which he managed to accomplish. So far he has done nothing to change those positive perceptions. He seems to be, by all accounts, that changed man.

But we have no choice but to be skeptical. There have been so many Roethlisbergers, men gone out of control who said the right thing and then did the opposite, to trust this latest conversion. He must understand this. He must realize that it will take months, maybe years, for him to rebuild a reputation he spent so much time tarnishing.

He's been given another opportunity to prove himself, to prove he has changed. Now he has to make the most of it.

Everybody will be watching.