Many voice concerns for hometown 'hero' Ben
Saturday, April 17, 2010
By Joe Vardon, The Toledo Blade
FINDLAY, Ohio -- Walk into Tony's Restaurant here and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is as big as ever.
Customers are greeted by an autographed Steelers jersey and other assorted memorabilia commemorating the Findlay High graduate and his pro-football glory. Still featured on the menu is the Big Ben Burger, or a pound of ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and Tony's barbeque sauce on a five-inch bun for $7 -- in honor of Roethlisberger's No. 7 jersey.
Cheese costs seven cents.
"We're still selling it every day," said Connie Tagliapietra, assistant manager at Tony's and the twin sister of Bonnie Brown, whose husband, Tom, owns the restaurant. "If people here were totally against him, we wouldn't be selling the Big Ben Burger like we've been."
Ms. Tagliapietra said the Browns -- the restaurant's owners, not the Pittsburgh football rival -- still support Mr. Roethlisberger despite allegations of sexual misconduct made against him by at least three different women in the last nine months.
But in this tight-knit, conservative community of about 37,000 people, a shared sense of disappointment and disbelief has spread among the residents who watched Mr. Roethlisberger grow up and who became Steelers fans when Pittsburgh made him its first-round draft pick in 2004.
From Mr. Roethlisberger's former neighbors on Woodley Terrace, to city hall, to parents of current Findlay High athletes, feelings run strong about their hometown hero and the off-field behavior that has, since July, led him to be sued by one woman for sexual assault, investigated by local law enforcement in Georgia for another alleged assault.
Police documents released Thursday in Georgia show that after the incident in Georgia surfaced, a 16-year-old in Milledgeville, Ga., told authorities he had been told about incidents involving Mr. Roethlisberger and a friend's sister. The 16-year-old told police the woman's brother told him that Roethlisberger twice made unwanted sexual advances. Authorities repeatedly tried to interview the woman, who is in her early 20s, but she declined.
"I think he's a stupid jerk," said Tom Daley, a former neighbor of the Roethlisberger family on Woodley Terrace. Mr. Roethlisberger's parents moved to Pittsburgh last summer.
"His dad and mother were real nice people. It's just amazing to me, the way he grew up, that he would do something like this. I can't believe it."
Though it was announced this week that Mr. Roethlisberger would not be charged in connection with an incident at a Milledgeville nightclub last month, reported details of Mr. Roethlisberger's involvement with the 20-year-old accuser have sullied Mr. Roethlisberger's reputation at home.
"The first one, you give him the benefit of the doubt," Findlay Mayor Peter Sehnert said. "But then another one and now maybe another one after that? It's not looking good. Something's not right here."
While Mr. Sehnert acknowledges that Mr. Roethlisberger has not been criminally charged for his involvement with any of his accusers, the Findlay mayor said, "It's a little bit disheartening that he would at least put himself in that position."
Jeff Hook, of Findlay, said that more than anything he was "disappointed" by Mr. Roethlisberger's off-field actions.
"Maybe he got caught up in some of the glamour and fame of pro football," said Mr. Hook, who attended Findlay's St. Paul United Methodist Church with the Roethlisbergers. "I hope he gets his priorities back in order and again represents himself, his family, and the city of Findlay in a positive way."
Former Findlay basketball coach Jerry Snodgrass said he never saw behavior in Mr. Roethlisberger that "was anything different from any other kid in high school."
"More than anything, you hope that things aren't true," Mr. Snodgrass said.
Gabe Miller, manager at the Landing Pad Sports Bar and Grill in Findlay, a spot for Steelers' fan groups to watch Pittsburgh games in the fall, said Mr. Roethlisberger has done much for the community here through charity work. He said he expects black No. 7 jerseys to fill the bar again this fall.
"He's a hometown hero," Mr. Miller said. "He's done great things for the community. We're all still going to back Ben."
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