Starkey: Storms ahead for Big Ben

Sunday, April 25, 2010
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Anyone who has watched Ben Roethlisberger play football knows he does his best work when his world is falling apart.

Skim his greatest-plays catalog, and you'll see the pattern: Roethlisberger is about to be engulfed, his receivers' patterns are toast, the play is ruined ... and he somehow turns all that trouble into triumph.

A Roethlisberger family friend, Tony Iriti, once told me: "Ben loves to prove people wrong."

We have seen ample evidence of that:

Roethlisberger transitioned from Miami (Ohio) to unexpected NFL starter two games into his rookie season - and went 13-0.

He made the best quarterback tackle in NFL history in the open field against a cornerback half his size.

He took his team 88 improbable yards to win the Super Bowl.

He suited up for the first day of training camp just six weeks after a near-fatal motorcycle accident and lined up behind center just two weeks after a spinal-cord concussion.

But all of that combined cannot compare to the challenge awaiting Roethlisberger this season, in the wake of a second sexual assault accusation within a year.

Charges were not filed in either case, but Roethlisberger faces a stiff sentence nonetheless. He is liable to encounter as much scrutiny and verbal abuse as any athlete in recent memory when he returns from his NFL-imposed suspension.

Big Ben has become a pariah in these parts. His likeness was removed from a display at the Pittsburgh Zoo, replaced by Mario Lemieux's. His brand-name beef jerky was pulled from the shelves. Polls show fans heavily in favor of trading him.

One woman called a local sports-talk show to say she wanted to organize a bonfire where people could burn their No. 7 jerseys.

Imagine if Roethlisberger doesn't win right away. Imagine if he throws a few interceptions in his comeback game.

And when the Steelers hit the road, well, let's put it this way: NFL stadiums aren't exactly the Augusta National Golf Club when it comes to taming the locals. A taste of what Roethlisberger can expect occurred at the NFL Draft at New York's Radio City Music Hall.

When the Steelers were announced with the 18th pick, the upper gallery chanted: "She said no! She said no!"

What's more, Roethlisberger's favorite receiver Santonio Holmes is gone, as is his freedom to run the offense as he pleases. The Steelers are under an ownership mandate to re-emphasize the running game.

I thought of all this Saturday, six years to the day the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger. My assignment that afternoon was to write a get-to-know-him piece for The Trib. The first person I called was his mentor and college coach, Terry Hoeppner.

"He's a special guy," said Hoeppner, who died of brain cancer three years ago. "The people of Pittsburgh are going to fall in love with him."

That they did. Big Ben wore a crew cut and the initials P.F.J. Play For Jesus on his football shoes. His teammates spoke of how he drank only ice water in bars. He won every game, too, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to go 13-0.

Fans had been waiting a quarter-century for the next Terry Bradshaw. The love affair intensified the following season, when the Steelers finally reeled in "One for the Thumb."

Big Ben had become larger than life. He was beloved, just as Hoeppner had predicted.

Behind the scenes, we know things weren't so rosy. As Roethlisberger admitted to ESPN six months ago: "I wasn't a good leader early on, and I probably wasn't the best teammate the first couple of years."

The implication of the ESPN piece was that Roethlisberger had since changed and was growing into a mature leader of men.

That would be laughable if it weren't so sad. You'd think the motorcycle accident would have knocked some humility into him. Instead, it might have jarred his demons loose.

Now, four years after the wreck, it is not Roethlisberger's face but his image that needs to be rebuilt. The first step is to behave, of course, but even that won't cut it if he doesn't play well and win.