LATROBE, Pa. -- Thirteen months ago, I convened five NFL quarterbacks in a room in Lake Tahoe to have a wide-ranging discussion for Sports Illustrated on the state of the position today. But it almost didn't happen the way I wanted it.
The day before we were to sit down in a restaurant overlooking a golf course, Ben Roethlisberger, who had won his second Super Bowl a few months earlier, told me he wasn't going to do it. Didn't want to. Was too busy. I told him he agreed to do it, and he had to keep his word -- months of planning and arm-twisting had gone into it. So Roethlisberger did it, but he wasn't happy about it. He big-dogged the photographer flown in for the occasion. Roethlisberger didn't give his best effort in the roundtable discussion; he was either texting or talking to one of the other quarterbacks or making calls a good third of the time. He left the room first when it was over, and a couple of us just looked at each other and said, in so many words, "What is wrong with that guy?''
Since then, there have been allegations of sexual impropriety with a hotel concierge and with a 20-year-old Georgia college student, police investigations that dragged Roethlisberger's name through the mud in two states, and an NFL suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy. For being a cad, at the least.
I'd heard Roethlisberger spent his time away from football trying to go back from being Big Ben to a football player named Roethlisberger. The football establishment -- the Steelers, the rabid fans of the team, the public that never says no to a star quarterback -- combined with an immature kid to create a monster. Now, I'd heard, he'd spent time back with his father and stepmother, who recently moved from Ohio to Western Pennsylvania. He'd gotten some good counseling, not only from professional therapists but also from his first Steelers coach, Bill Cowher, and with-it former Steeler Merril Hoge.
Roethlisberger used to avoid the local press or either talk down to them or give them nothing of himself; now he asks a couple of them for advice. He never was much of a teacher on the field to the young receivers. "Now he's helping every one of them,'' said wideout Mike Wallace. "He wants to be sure every one of them gets all the help he can give 'em, so they all have a fair shot.'' He used to avoid the never-ending autograph lines in camp; now, daily, he signs. Late Monday afternoon, a boy of about six started crying when Roethlisberger missed him, and Roethlisberger went back to sign his yellow Terrible Towel.
"I can tell you he's making a valiant effort to get his life right,'' said teammate Hines Ward outside the training camp cafeteria Monday at lunch. "He's night and day. He's joking with guys, all the guys, whereas he used to be kind of clique-ish. He's trying to repair his relationship with the fans. It's a great sign.''
I spoke with Roethlisberger for about 10 minutes. No great revelations. I was a little disappointed when I asked him what he felt he had to do to redeem himself publicly and he said, "Win. Win a championship.'' I meant redeeming himself off the field. But I think he wants to be known as a football player now, to his teammates and his fans, and not Big Ben the sideshow. He also knows talking about the situation and making promises about the kind of man he's going to be isn't going to change anyone's mind about him. He has to prove he's changed, every day, instead of going on Oprah. It's time for actions, not words.
"What have you learned about yourself through all of this?'' I wondered.
"'I've learned a lot,'' he said, tapping his heart. "But I'm going to keep it in here for now. Every life is a book, and I'm on a new chapter now. I like where I am.''
The Steelers will find out no later than the week before the season whether Roethlisberger will have his six-game NFL ban reduced to four by Commissioner Roger Goodell. The smarter Byron Leftwich has the edge over the more mobile Dennis Dixon to start the opener, but it's still a fluid quarterback situation. For the length of the suspension, Roethlisberger can't go to the practice facility or have contact with any of the coaches. It's likely he'll work out mostly on his own -- he wants to go through a football workout, in cleats, daily -- and find someone to throw to.
"So far he's handled his situation well,'' club president Art Rooney II said. "He's been determined to handle all things in his life better.''
And that's about the end of it for now. He's got to prove the Steelers made the right call by not jettisoning him at the major crisis point last winter. Rooney told me in March that Roethlisberger's actions would speak much louder than any words he said. Not much has changed in that regard -- except Roethlisberger is off to a good start doing the right things.
A note about preseason coverage after taking a few e-mail and Twitter shots for either not seeing preseason games over the weekend or giving them short shrift in the Monday column.
To see teams and spend preseason time with their players and coaches, I've found the best way to handle camps is to have conversations before and after practice. Doing that means I don't get to see a lot of the preseason games, because I'm usually traveling at night to make it to the next camp -- and when I'm in a hotel while the games are on, the hotels very rarely have NFL Network or anything but a network game on. (Although late Sunday night, after missing the Denver-Cincinnati game, I was given a pass to see the game streamed live on NFL.com, which I'll do some next weekend when I'm home cranking out more copy for SI's NFL preview issue).
Seems if I ignore the games and write nothing, you call me for shirking my job. If I watch ESPN highlights and read the box scores and make some not-very-deep observations, I'm shallow.
In my job, I think it's more important to spend an hour with Andy Reid, a half-hour with Justin Tuck, extended time with Rex Ryan and Bart Scott, and meet and get to know Mike Wallace of the Steelers than it is to station myself somewhere to watch preseason games. If I wanted to do both, I'd miss at least half the teams I'm seeing out here.
Now for your e-mail:
• FAIR ENOUGH, BUT ... "As always, I love your columns. They are must-reads every Monday for me. That said, you are an interesting contradiction. You lament our over-use of Blackberries, iPhone, Twitter, and the need for constant information (totally agree, by the way) yet hold the charity voting on Twitter. Some of us refuse to enter the Twitter world. Then you applaud Houston GM Rick Smith's meditation, yet criticize a gentleman for taking two plus hours and just being quiet. Some of us don't need a dark closet to meditate and think about who we are and our place in the world. Some of us do that while "staring" at others. You should try it sometime. Perhaps that's what your running is for. I happen to think that if more people took two hours every now and then to enjoy a coffee without doing anything else, the world could very well be a better place.''--Marc, Granger, Ind.
Many people called me a walking, talking contradiction (and worse) over just this point. Fair. But do you really think sitting for two hours and 46 minutes and doing nothing but pondering the world in a Starbucks is the same thing as a football GM meditating for 15 minutes in his closet? I don't. If Rick Smith sat in his closet for almost three hours each day meditating, and I owned the Texans, there's a good chance I'd be looking for a new general manager pretty soon. I'm not saying we should navel-gaze. I could well be wrong, based on the amount of you telling me I'm an idiot over this, but I find it odd for someone to sit in a Starbucks for almost three hours, staring straight ahead.
• HE'S DOWN ON BRADY QUINN, AS IS DENVER, I WOULD ASSUME. "You briefly mentioned Brady Quinn's terrible play in your MMQB column. I understand that he is pretty much irrelevant at this point, but I just cannot get over how bad he is. I don't think he could hit the side of a barn if it were more than 10 yards away. Has he over-developed himself, physically? He seems way too muscular to be winging footballs. I am trying to think how he could have gone from pretty decent at Notre Dame to just horrific in the NFL.''--T.J., Chicago
I don't know, other than to say the Broncos have liked the adjustments Quinn has made in his game in the offseason. He slowed down his manic delivery, for one thing. But he obviously has to play better than he did Sunday night to have a chance to ever see the field in Denver.
• HE DOESN'T LIKE TONY DUNGY. "What's with the media's love affair with Dungy? He finds it hard to be around people who use profanity... but is perfectly comfortable mentoring someone, who is perfectly comfortable murdering living creatures for sport? Yeah, the F-Bomb is much worse then strangling or electrifying a poor animal. Nice of the media to give Dungy a free ride on that.''--Nick, Manhattan
I disagree with Tony on the Rex Ryan-cursing-on-HBO being a league issue. But I also disagree with the hundreds of you over the last couple of years who have wanted to ban Mike Vick for life. I believe once a person has paid his debt to society and then can be rehabbed -- and the Vick story is still being written -- he should have a second chance. You're not going to convince me I'm wrong, and I'm not going to convince you that you're wrong.
• IT MAKES SENSE, WAYNE. "Here's my theory on why the Vikings only played Tarvaris Jackson one series: I think they know Brett Favre is coming back and want to try to improve Sage Rosenfels' trade value. Makes some sense, right?''--Wayne, Minneapolis
Certainly does. I thought of that too, and it's certainly possible. But I think regardless of what the future holds for Rosenfels, the Vikings need to get Jackson as many snaps with the first-team offense as possible in this preseason. He's thrown only 21 passes since the 2008 season, and even if Favre were returning, how can you be sure he's going to last the season? It's incumbent on them to get Jackson time with the guys he might have to play with at some point this fall.
• REVIS, SCHMEVIS. "Peter, I have no sympathy for athletes who holdout when they have a contract. Darrelle Revis is complaining that he'll "only" make $21 million over the next 3 years. A huge portion of this country is trying to figure out how to keep from becoming homeless, and you're suggesting the Jets should give Revis another $20 million to make him happy? The Jets should donate $20 million to a charity that helps working Americans and tell Revis to go to hell.''--Dean, Chicago
Duly noted. You are not alone.
• NEVER GOT IT PUBLISHED, OR FINISHED. "Hello Mr. King, thank you for your columns, they're a great read to start off the week. I'm writing to you, though, to inquire about something else; in a few columns written in the months leading up to his stroke, Dr. Z alluded to a memoir he was writing. I was wondering if you by any chance knew what the status of that project is, and if you could share it if you did.''--Paco Kang, Boston
Sure. Paul was in the process of finishing the memoir when he was struck by the strokes in November 2008, and also in the process of finding a publisher. I know it was frustrating to him to not have gotten it done on either end. The next time I speak to Linda, I will ask if there's been any progress on that front.
• APPLES, ORANGES. "Ben Tate is a bigger loss than the Patriots losing Ty Warren for the season? They don't have any outside linebackers who can set the edge and Warren is probably the best run-stopping 3-4 end in the league. Huge loss for the defense. Come on now.''--Kevin, Foxboro, Mass.
What I wrote was that Tate was the "biggest loss of the preseason weekend.'' Warren was hurt early in training camp with a hip injury that resulted in him being placed on injured-reserve late in the week. He never played in the preseason. I agree that the loss of Warren is bigger for the Patriots than the loss of Tate to the Texans, but I think you can see the difference there.