Ben Roethlisberger’s Journey to Notoriety
Don Wright/Associated Press
Ben Roethlisberger, who has won two Super Bowl titles as quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, will miss six games this season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
By THAYER EVANS
Published: July 29, 2010
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Before the two Super Bowl titles, the $102 million contract and the well-chronicled accusations of sexual assault, Ben Roethlisberger was a college quarterback in 2004, about to realize his dream of playing in the N.F.L.
Roethlisberger Arrives at Camp, Hoping to Put Off-Season Behind Him (July 31, 2010)
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Ben Roethlisberger posed for pictures with Milledgeville, Ga., police officers on the night a woman accused him of assaulting her in a nightclub. He also faces a suit by a woman who contends he raped her in 2008 in Lake Tahoe.
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Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Roethlisberger went from an unheralded college program to the N.F.L. combine.
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Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
Roethlisberger became a hero to Pittsburgh Steelers fans even in his rookie season in 2004.
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Doug Mills/The New York Times
Ben Roethlisberger won a second Super Bowl championship in 2009, when he was 26 and in his fifth season in the N.F.L.
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Roethlisberger apologized in April for creating negative attention for the Steelers and the N.F.L.
Mike Iriti, a childhood friend and a teammate at Miami University in Ohio, was with Roethlisberger and others in the days before the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him 11th over all. Roethlisberger slipped off to a room by himself, Iriti said, and cried.
“He knew that it was going to be completely different,” Iriti said. “It was one of those ultimate realizations that life ain’t the same. I think he kind of had that feeling of, Who do I look at as my true friends? He lost that vision somewhere.”
Indeed, as Roethlisberger prepares to report to the Steelers’ training camp Friday, life is not the same for the quarterback once affectionately known as Big Ben.
In the spring Roethlisberger, 28, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a Georgia nightclub, then scolded by the district attorney in the case, although no charges were filed. He also faces a suit filed last July by a woman who contends he raped her in 2008 at a Lake Tahoe hotel and casino.
In April, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy and ordered him to get a behavioral evaluation. In discussing the penalty, Goodell cited not only the Georgia incident, but also a “pattern of behavior and bad judgments.”
To Roethlisberger’s many fans, the revelations of his conduct have come as a shock. But to many who knew him growing up in Findlay, Ohio, played with him in college or saw his personality change in Pittsburgh, the seeds of his problems were sown long ago.
“It took awhile,” Ryan Hawk, a backup to Roethlisberger at Miami, said in a telephone interview, “but it’s all coming out now.”
Roethlisberger did not respond to an interview request through his agent.
Those who knew the young Roethlisberger described him as a person who was intensely driven to succeed in athletics but who was allowed little time to develop socially. He had friends, they said, but few were close. He could be charming at times, they said, but usually when it served his self-interests.
Childhood Focus on Sports
Roethlisberger faced considerable loss early in life. His parents divorced when he was 2, and he lived with his father, Ken. When he was 8, his mother, Ida, died of injuries sustained in a car crash. She was on her way to visit him.
By then, his father had remarried, according to news accounts. The family later moved from Lima, Ohio, to Findlay, a quiet town of about 37,000 in northwestern Ohio. Roethlisberger immersed himself in sports, excelling in football, basketball and baseball.
Tara McCullough, who also grew up in northwestern Ohio and dated Roethlisberger briefly when they were freshmen at Miami, said she had childhood memories of seeing him shooting baskets for hours on end at a recreation center.
“He seemed really driven in terms of athletics,” she said.
Roethlisberger’s father, a former pitcher and quarterback at Georgia Tech, encouraged him.
Iriti said Roethlisberger could not spend the night at a friend’s house unless his father and stepmother had two days’ notice to check out the arrangement. Clayton Acheson, who played high school basketball with Roethlisberger, described him as sheltered.
Roethlisberger emerged as an intense competitor, even in recreational activities like table tennis and pool. Acheson described him as “Michael Jordan competitive.”
“He pretty much knew how good he was,” Acheson said. “He was a good kid. That’s why I think a lot of this is going down now, because he never lived like any of us in high school, having fun, doing this and that. He was completely focused.”
But as Roethlisberger began to succeed on the field, he also began to exhibit signs of privilege that later characterized his recent actions off the field, those who knew him said. Iriti recalled that Roethlisberger did not show up for a couple of practices for a youth travel baseball team and that Iriti’s father cut him.
“He definitely had the thought that he didn’t have to do things,” Iriti said.
Roethlisberger’s senior year of high school, when he became the starting quarterback and set state records, had its share of drama. Some of his receivers felt forced to befriend Roethlisberger out of fear that he would not throw the ball to them, said Josh Huston, a former teammate who went on to be a kicker for Ohio State.
Iriti recalled that Roethlisberger nearly quit the football team. At one practice, Roethlisberger was sent to the sideline after hitting his hand on a helmet while throwing a pass and could only watch as Iriti excelled. Roethlisberger, he recalled, sulked and said: “I don’t like it. I hate it.”
The coach had to convince Roethlisberger that the team needed him, Iriti said.
“He’s just that type of person,” Iriti said. “I don’t think he understands who he is. He doesn’t understand just because you have a talent doesn’t mean that you have the right to just automatically dismiss everything. There’s more to being Ben Roethlisberger than just throwing footballs.”
High school classmates considered Roethlisberger cocky, Acheson said, adding that he tried too hard and was difficult to talk to because he was so focused on succeeding athletically. Huston said he rarely spent time with Roethlisberger because he did not like his swagger, trash talk and competitiveness beyond sports.
“I think he felt like he needed more respect than what he got off the field for being a good athlete,” Huston said in a telephone interview.
Even rare conversations with Roethlisberger were forced, Acheson said.
“He didn’t care about any of us or what we were doing,” he said. “It was tunnel vision completely.”
When the police were dispatched to parties, Acheson said, Roethlisberger was often chosen to talk to them and smooth things over. “He got us out of a few parties with the cops,” Acheson said. “He wasn’t ever drinking. We’d just have him go out there.”
In an interview with a Pittsburgh television station in June, Roethlisberger said his father did not allow alcohol in the house.
High school classmates recalled that Roethlisberger mainly dated the class president.
“No girls were throwing themselves at him,” Acheson said.
In College, No Competition
Instead, he was attracting the attention of recruiters from Division I football programs. Iriti said Roethlisberger once told him that if a quarterback named Rick McFadden went to Ohio State, he would not play for the Buckeyes.
After McFadden announced his intention to attend Ohio State, Roethlisberger chose between Duke and Miami, neither one a football power.
“He’s never had any competition,” Iriti said.
The only competition at Miami came from Hawk, who eventually transferred. Hawk recalled Roethlisberger as a teammate who set his own rules.
As Miami freshmen they were going to redshirt, but Hawk was forced into action late in the season because of injuries.
Players like Roethlisberger, who traveled with the team but were not expected to play, were supposed to participate in 5 a.m. weight-lifting sessions the day before games. But Roethlisberger never showed up, which upset the older players, Hawk said.
Roethlisberger’s absences, Hawk said, caused the team to institute a rule requiring freshmen to participate in the sessions unless they were playing. When Roethlisberger became the Miami starter the next season, Hawk said, his teammates openly laughed at him for missing the weight-lifting sessions.
“It was little stuff like that that built up,” Hawk said.
When McCullough dated Roethlisberger in college, she said, he was so shy that he came across as arrogant. She recalled that he often waited outside her dormitory for her to return from volleyball practice and that he wrote letters and notes that said, “You’re beautiful.”
McCullough said she did not notice anything unusual about Roethlisberger and that he was never sexually inappropriate. Like others, she did not recall his drinking alcohol heavily at Miami.
“He was nice,” McCullough said. “He was flattering all in a good, fine way.”
So she was stunned by the recent allegations against him.
“It is hard for me to fathom just because it’s not the person that I knew,” she said, her voice cracking. “It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it.”
When Roethlisberger was drafted, he celebrated with his family and friends at a New York hotel. Holding an alcoholic drink, he leaned over to his high school friend Scott Andrus and whispered, “This is the first time I’ve drank in front of my parents.”
“I was dumbfounded,” Andrus said, “but that’s how much respect Ben has” for his family.
In the N.F.L., a Change
When Roethlisberger arrived in Pittsburgh as a rookie in 2004, he was low-key. Stephanie Barnhart, who was a waitress at the now-closed sports bar Hi-Tops, said he did not drink alcohol.
“He was very quiet and innocent when he first started,” Barnhart said in a telephone interview. “He was very, very polite.”
But Roethlisberger’s behavior, by many accounts, changed after he won his first Super Bowl, in February 2006. Four months later, he sustained head injuries in a motorcycle crash. He was not wearing a helmet.
As Roethlisberger became a fixture in Pittsburgh bars and clubs, word spread about his boorish manner.
Throughout the Pittsburgh area, he developed a reputation among waiters and bartenders for leaving without paying and, if he did pay, for tipping poorly. His behavior toward women grew increasingly aggressive and demanding, with those he dated and those he encountered at nightclubs, those who know him said.
“It got to the extent the past two or three years that it was a phenomenon,” said Jesse Herrle, general manager of Tad’s on East Carson, a bar on Pittsburgh’s trendy South Side. “It grew into something he lost control of and it turned on him. He became a joke in this town and, in my industry, a laughingstock. People knew when he was in a bar or out and about; he was a punch line.”
In the Pittsburgh television interview in June, Roethlisberger acknowledged that he was not prepared for his transition to fame.
“To get thrown into that so fast, I got so overwhelmed with it that it consumed me,” he said.
A woman who dated Roethlisberger shortly after he joined the Steelers said that when they met, he was “a very down-to-earth guy” who often talked about his family. But by the time she stopped seeing him after his first Super Bowl victory, he had changed.
“It was quick fame,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared her past relationship with Roethlisberger might harm her professionally. “It was just different.”
Whatever the reasons for the change — the success, the money, the motorcycle accident — Roethlisberger will return to the site of his greatest success on Friday. For him, the rules have changed, if not on the field, then off it.