Townsfolk withhold judgment on Big Ben
Roethlisberger is 'under spotlight 24-7' in Georgia
Monday, March 08, 2010
By Dan Majors, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. -- Since purchasing his summer vacation home at Reynolds Plantation, an upscale community near Greensboro, Ga., Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has cultivated a reputation similar to the one he has in Ohio and Pittsburgh, the two other places where he has lived.
Those who encounter him say he is friendly, but not necessarily outgoing. He is generous with his time and money, posing for photographs and donating to charity.
But some people grumble that he can be curt if he doesn't want to be bothered and there are members of the service industry who share stories of his walking out on checks or losing his temper over poor service.
He also has the reputation of a single young man who enjoys a night on the town and the company of women. It is a side of him that came under scrutiny last summer, when a Nevada woman accused him of sexually assaulting her during a charity golf event in Lake Tahoe in 2008. Mr. Roethlisberger has denied the charge, which he and his attorneys are fighting in court.
Trouble has followed Mr. Roethlisberger to Georgia, where a 20-year-old student at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville Friday told police that he had sexually assaulted her at a nightclub.
No charges have been filed in the incident, and Mr. Roethlisberger, 28, is cooperating with police, according to his agent. The Milledgeville Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are looking into the matter and have indicated that if there are any developments, they will have a news conference to discuss them.
Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten and President Art Rooney II have declined to comment.
Mr. Roethlisberger's presence in the tiny college town of Milledgeville, where he arrived Thursday night with friends to do some bar-hopping, created an immediate stir as students who spotted him began texting each other and following him.
Jacob Vargas, 21, a junior at GCSU, was at a bar across the street when he heard the buzz. Coincidentally carrying a digital camera that he had recently purchased, Mr. Vargas went across the street to The Velvet Elvis to see if he could get a picture taken with the NFL star.
It is that image of Mr. Roethlisberger, wearing a T-shirt depicting the face of a devil, that has become an Internet icon of the incident.
"He was sitting near the bar and I told him, 'I know you get asked this all the time, but would you mind taking a picture with me and my buddies?' And he said, 'Yeah, I'll do it,' " Mr. Vargas said Sunday. "He was cordial about it, but I could tell it probably bothered him a little bit."
Daniel Pickett, 23, a junior at GCSU, is a manager at Mellow Mushroom, a pizza parlor in Eatonton, near Mr. Roethlisberger's vacation home. He, too, heard about the quarterback's trip.
"A buddy of mine was there in Milledgeville that night," he said. "He walked up to him and said, 'I just turned 21.' And Ben Roethlisberger bought him a beer."
Mr. Pickett said he is aware of Mr. Roethlisberger's reputation of occasional rudeness, but he has seen no evidence of it.
"Anywhere he goes, he's under the spotlight 24/7," he said. "We all get angry sometimes when service isn't what we expect. When he does it, it's possible that people blow it out of proportion."
In choosing to buy a vacation home in Reynolds Plantation, Mr. Roethlisberger found a place where he could control his environment and enjoy an element of privacy. A gated community of 19,000 acres on man-made Lake Oconee, it has taken shape since 1987, when cousins Jamie and Mercer Reynolds carved it out of towering pines growing from the sand and Georgia's famous rich red clay.
There are 2,200 homes in Reynolds Plantation, ranging in price from $500,000 to $10 million. Sixty percent of the properties are owned and occupied by year-round residents. The rest are weekend getaways or vacation homes owned by people from all corners of the world.
There are all the amenities one would expect, including pools, tennis courts, hiking trails, marinas, restaurants and six championship golf courses.
Mr. Roethlisberger, who purchased his property after Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians told him about it a few years ago, lives in a subdivision called Great Waters, where his home overlooks the lake. The nearby golf course, which he is known to frequent, was designed by Jack Nicklaus and played host to the 2008 PGA Professional National Championship.
Lorraine Webb, 55, of Eatonton, and her husband own a marina on Lake Oconee. She has encountered Mr. Roethlisberger when he has stopped to buy gas for his boat.
"He's always been nice to everyone," she said. "When we see him, he's quiet and he wears his baseball cap down low like he doesn't want to be recognized. But I know people who have socialized with him on the water, and they say he's nice and he's a lot of fun."
"This is a pretty new area, and a lot of people come down here for the summer," said Eddie Webb, who is not related to Ms. Webb. "We see license plates from all over, especially up north. And you can tell by the cars that the people are really well-off. This is a resort, a place to get away, so you see a lot of celebrities."
Mr. Webb, 22, a student at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, works at the Publix supermarket in Eatonton. He said Mr. Roethlisberger once stopped in for groceries and wound up signing autographs for almost 30 minutes.
Thursday night, Mr. Webb was in Milledgeville and met Mr. Roethlisberger in The Brick, where the quarterback shook his hand.
"He wasn't really outgoing, but he was a cool guy," Mr. Webb said. "When everybody heard that he was down there, they got all excited, because nobody ever goes down to Milledgeville to party. And here's a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback in town. That's cool!"
Mr. Pickett said he has heard stories -- pro and con -- about the pro quarterback, but he intends to withhold passing judgment.
"I'd like to think he's a nice guy, and I give people the benefit of the doubt," he said. "Personally, I'm not going to form an opinion about the man until I actually see him and how he treats people."
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