Ben Roethlisberger has been good for nearly seven years now—good here being descriptive of public behavior, not morality, the way it’s applied to a heedful child or a docile dog. By all appearances the Steelers’ quarterback has acted like a cordial, civilized adult off the field, while on it he has proved to be one of the singular talents in NFL history. Whether that combination signals maturity—much less true redemption—is anyone’s guess.
Such uncertainty, as the NFL playoffs begin, will lead to the usual Big Ben sidestep by TV commentators. This is Roethlisberger’s ninth foray into the postseason, so much will be made of his three Super Bowl appearances, the way his grit so perfectly matches old-school football and the franchise’s image. The two rape accusations—one levied in civil court after an alleged attack at a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2008 and settled in ’12, the other allegedly committed in ’10 and dropped a month later after Georgia prosecutors declined to press charges—will barely be mentioned, if at all.
Beyond the telecasts, though, the chatter gets more contentious. Steelers partisans who don Big Ben’s jersey embrace a heavy brand of fandom. With the retirements of Ray Lewis and Kobe Bryant, the 34-year-old Roethlisberger is American sports’ most prominent polarizer, his number 7 as provocative as a question mark. And sooner or later, the ask does come.
“He said, ‘Why you got that jersey on? You know what Ben did? You’re a woman and you’re wearing it?’ ” says Pittsburgh fan Lefifia Moore, 41, about a confrontation she once had with a man outside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. “And I said, ‘Were you there? Do you have proof? How do you know she’s not lying?’ ”
In fact, once Steelers safety Troy Polamalu retired, in 2015, Roethlisberger became Moore’s favorite player. Why? “His performance,” she says. “Stuff happened. I can’t say he did, and I’m not going to say he didn’t. Personally, I don’t believe it; it’s her word against his. I like what he does on the field. When we’re in a crunch and I need a play, I can count on Ben to make it happen.”
She laughs. “And he doesn’t go down,” she says. “It’s a struggle to get him down.”
Since the summer of 2010, no women have come forward to accuse Roethlisberger of sexual assault, unwanted advances or so much as an off-color comment. There have been no reports of run-ins with police, not even a speeding ticket, and his name no longer serves as a synonym for noxious entitlement on the Pittsburgh bar scene. He has been married since ’11 to Ashley Harlan, a physician’s assistant of deep Christian values from nearby New Castle, Pa., after first talking to her two brothers and asking her dad for permission. They have three children, and Big Ben does seem to dote. When his now-four-year-old son, Benjamin, wove through a scrum of reporters in the locker room to tug on Dad’s pant leg after this season’s home opener, Roethlisberger’s facade melted.
“How’d you sneak up on me, huh?” he said, voice softening and rising, eyes wide, lifting the boy up high. “Did you see my interview?”
Indeed, if Roethlisberger has declined—as he did with SI—all requests in recent years to reflect on his walk from self-centered boor and alleged predator to family man, revered team leader and future Hall of Famer, he is hardly a ghost. He has made good on a vow to cooperate more with local media, even receiving an award for his accessibility. He appears for weekly state-of-Ben chats and answers questions, win or lose, after every game.
That he does all this genially, if tersely (“I need to be better”), allows for the impression that Roethlisberger is a stand-up guy. But there’s often a palpable sense that he endures these back-and-forths far more than he enjoys them, measuring even the most benign queries for hidden traps. “Ben knows what’s going on, even if he acts like he doesn’t; he fully knows, and better than just about anybody I’ve seen,” says Ryan Hawk, who spent two seasons battling Roethlisberger for the starting job at Miami (Ohio) University. “He’s very aware—but likes to portray that he’s not—and very smart.”
In other words Roethlisberger is, like most quarterbacks, a chess player, a competitive beast, a control freak. His job, of course, depends on keeping opponents off-balance, and he knows the value of a well-aimed purpose pitch. In fact, nearly seven years ago Roethlisberger fired one brushback, in the face of all logic and geography, and he has renewed its chippy message every year since.
The message consists of two words: Cory Rawson. But to understand the fury behind them, you must know that after Georgia district attorney Fred Bright announced on April 12, 2010, that he would not pursue rape charges against Roethlisberger, the then 28-year-old QB seemed to concede every denunciation—short of the accusation itself—leveled at him. Roethlisberger did not fight the NFL’s six-game suspension, or the mandated counseling that later reduced it to four. He didn’t blame the thousands of Steelers fans who wanted him traded, or owner Art Rooney II, steward of the upright family legacy, who mulled the idea very seriously. “The Rooneys are really principled people, and I think they wanted to be sure of Ben,” says Roethlisberger’s agent, Ryan Tollner. “They were worried about their brand and what they’ve built.”
Roethlisberger apologized publicly for the “disappointment and negative attention” caused by his infamously entitled antics; said he was “committed to improving and showing everyone my true values”; and cut short friends who tried to blame outside forces for his troubles. “Don’t make excuses for me,” he’d say. Roethlisberger went on ESPN just before his 2010 return, admitting that he had for years thought himself “invincible . . . untouchable and better than other people.” In the ensuing years he even made peace with critics like Steelers legend Terry Bradshaw, who said on national TV that Roethlisberger “disrespected women” and that the franchise should have “dumped” him.
In short, Roethlisberger seemed fully humbled, reformed even, except for one strangely enduring animus. When he was 10, his family moved from the small town of Bluffton, Ohio, to nearby Findlay, a prosperous city of 36,800 in the state’s northwest wing. He became a three-sport star there and set state records in his one electrifying season starting at QB for Findlay High. Through college at Miami and his first six years as a pro, Roethlisberger visited Findlay often, hosted a charity basketball game there, proudly called it home.
But after the Milledgeville, Ga., rape allegation surfaced in the spring of 2010, that all changed. Unflattering comments from Findlay residents about Roethlisberger as a young man appeared in national publications, “When Ben got in trouble,” says former Findlay High athletic director Jerry Snodgrass, “Findlay, in general, sold him down the river.”
The young QB was outraged. “A lot of stuff that was said is just blatant lies, which is ridiculous from people you played with and think are your friends,” Roethlisberger told the Findlay newspaper, The Courier. “You’d think people would be proud of you. Instead, I think there is a lot of jealousy.”
In response, when it came time to list his birthplace in the Steelers’ 2010 media guide, Roethlisberger had the location changed from Findlay to Corey Rawson.
The problem: “Corey Rawson” doesn’t exist. Roethlisberger was actually born in Lima, and before fifth grade he lived near—but not in—the two tiny villages of Mount Cory and Rawson. He attended the Cory-Rawson school through fourth grade, but nobody there calls that a place of residence; it’s no wonder that Roethlisberger misspelled it the first time and a few months later slipped up and referred to himself on ESPN as “the kid that grew up in Findlay.”
Roethlisberger has otherwise maintained a biliously hard line on the matter. (He’s also dropped the erroneous e in Cory.) Despite outcries from Ohioans that his listed hometown is no more real than Bikini Bottom, he persisted; the 2016 media guide still lists Roethlisberger’s birthplace as Cory Rawson. It is, in its way, a deftly wielded needle: easily ignored by Pittsburgh fans and NFL pundits, even as its point pokes away at one small, sensitive dot on the Ohio map.
Never mind that such digs keep fresh a past that Roethlisberger is loath to discuss, and fray his image as a chastened soul. Or that the remarks made by Findlayites largely lined up with his retrospective self-description of an arrogant ass. It’s almost as if Roethlisberger keeps “Cory Rawson” as his one place to vent all the emotions loosed by the rape charges and the resultant criticism, the ones that don’t figure to fade no matter how long he leads his team onto the field, week after week, with thousands cheering, wearing his name.
At 27, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey is seven years younger than his quarterback. That won’t matter. “I say all the time: The moment he walks away, I’m walking right behind him,” Pouncey says. “You get so used to playing with that type, man, and I don’t know if I’m ready to walk into a huddle with another quarterback. I don’t think I’ll ever be.”
Pouncey won an NCAA championship at Florida snapping to Tim Tebow, who commanded legendary respect from teammates and opponents. But not, for Pouncey, as much as Roethlisberger. “Ben has something most people don’t,” Pouncey says. “He doesn’t have to say much. If he just looks at you, even in the game...Say, for example, I have a low snap. I’d rather Ben say something than give me that look. But he’s not going to call us out in the media. He’ll come to us personally: ‘Pounce, that snap was low there...’
“Some people might think different, but I think he’s the greatest guy in the world. The best leader. The best quarterback. If Ben told me to go swing on a guy? I’d run right over and do it.”
Then again, Pouncey joined the Steelers as a rookie in 2010, the dividing line in Roethlisberger’s career, the season in which he had little choice but to grow up and reach out. In 2004 he set a rookie record with 13 straight victories; the next year he became the youngest signal-caller ever to win a Super Bowl. But this precocity had a downside. Even if you concede the challenges facing a 22-year-old leading an already successful team of veterans, Roethlisberger did himself no favors.
“A lot of success came really quickly for him; it was hard for him to manage that and be one of the guys,” says former running back Jerome Bettis, who played with Roethlisberger in 2004 and ’05. “He had to insulate himself to a degree because of the scrutiny he was under. There were some incidents where he wasn’t the best teammate.”
Steelers tradition, for instance, has it that a rookie brings breakfast for his position group on Saturdays. Roethlisberger, after he became the starter and star, failed to do so. “And small things like that become a big issue,” Bettis says. For several years Roethlisberger was conspicuously passed over when the team selected its captains.
Before retiring, Bettis told Roethlisberger that, as the quarterback, he had to start giving more of himself to the public and to every segment of the team in order to achieve true leadership. The message didn’t take. In the summer of 2006, after ignoring coach Bill Cowher’s insistence that he wear a helmet, Roethlisberger nearly died in a motorcycle crash in downtown Pittsburgh, breaking his jaw and nose and numerous teeth. During the ’06 season, the Pittsburgh locker room thrummed with dissatisfaction over Big Ben’s responsiveness and last-in-first-out work ethic. Linebacker Joey Porter even called Roethlisberger out in a team meeting for treating everyone like his supporting cast.
It wasn't until the spring of 2008, after he signed an eight-year, $102 million contract, that the nickel finally dropped. One March night Roethlisberger sat veteran backup Charlie Batch down at a Quaker Steak & Lube, bought drinks and asked, “How can I be a better teammate?” Batch spent the next three hours talking about taking linemen out for meals, presenting thoughtful gifts, stopping by defensive players’ lockers at the end of practice—all variations on the same theme: Show ’em you care.
That autumn Roethlisberger was named a team captain for the first time. The Steelers went 12–4 and beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII after the QB deftly managed a 78-yard final drive capped by a six-yard laser to wide receiver Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left. When he and Batch hugged afterward, Roethlisberger said, “So this is what you were talking about, huh?”
As an NFL quarterback and leader, if not as a man, his evolution was all but complete. Like Pouncey, wideout Antonio Brown found himself confronting a different Roethlisberger after being drafted by Pittsburgh in 2010: one who sought out teammates, and now with a lesson to teach. “He always is challenging me about responsibility, doing things the right way,” Brown says. “He taught me a lot. He was suspended four games [for the Milledgeville incident], and when he got back he told me, ‘No matter what happens with you in this league, when you become a star, always keep your head and stay level-grounded. Keep the right people around you.’ ”
Physically, there have been few long-tenured quarterbacks like Roethlisberger. At 6' 5" and 240 pounds he possesses neither Tom Brady’s litheness nor his hero John Elway’s speed, yet he ranges in a way the similarly built Peyton Manning never did. Roethlisberger’slightfooted knack for extending plays, his ability to unload the ball from all angles and his startling accuracy on deep throws reveal the all-district point guard operating within. Deep down, he is a baller.
Every performance, that is, contains both beauty and beast, refined technique and backyard mayhem, sometimes within seconds of each other. In one third-quarter sequence against the Bengals in Week 2, Roethlisberger followed up a near interception by, first, on third-and-one, fending off 325-pound tackle Domata Peko with his left hand and, while being yanked to the ground, shoveling the ball to tight end Xavier Grimble for a six-yard gain; then lofting a 53-yard rainbow so perfectly placed that it hit the streaking Sammie Coates in the face mask; and, finally, threading a nine-yard touchdown pass between three defenders to tight end Jesse James in the end zone.
The score, of course, was appreciated, but defensive teammates particularly loved the Peko tussle. Not that it was a surprise. Before joining Pittsburgh in 2014, linebacker Arthur Moats lined up against Roethlisberger for four years with Buffalo. “The biggest thing,” Moats says, “was you’d hit him, and the first guy would never bring him down. You’d hit him, fall off. Ben’s like, ‘It’s just one of y’all? Good luck.’ Three-hundred-pound grown men, he’s just throwing them off—and then he throws a bomb for 50 yards? That’s what separates him.”
With just one playoff victory over the last five years, Roethlisberger certainly hasn’t won like Brady (who has?), but his numbers—29 TD passes in this, his 13th season, during which he missed a week following left-knee surgery and sat out the final game after the team’s playoff spot was secure—rank among the greats. Roethlisberger is 10th in passing yards (46,814), ninth in touchdowns (301), eighth in passer rating (94.1) and seventh in game-winning drives (39). Only Bradshaw’s four Super Bowl rings keep him a cut above in the Pittsburgh hierarchy; they can start casting Roethlisberger’s bust in Canton now. “He’s always had great vision and feel, a great arm, but the manner in which he’s getting the ball out, and fast, 90% of the time—he’s making really good decisions,” says Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “It shows growth.”
Says Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who served as Pittsburgh’s OC from 2007 to ’11, “People are finally realizing what I knew for a long time: that he’s been the most underrated quarterback in the NFL going back six, seven years.”
This season—with running back Le’Veon Bell suspended for the first three games and receiver Martavis Bryant banned for all 16 for violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy; with a rash of injuries and a defense still finding itself—the Steelers proved wildly uneven. Roethlisberger gave varying responses. First, after a three-game losing streak left Pittsburgh 4–4, he tried calm. “Follow me,” Roethlisberger said. “Guys that’ve been here know: No time, no reason, to panic. Just watch me.”
He then passed for 408 yards and three TDs against red-hot Dallas, pulling off a 75-yard scoring drive that had Pittsburgh up 30–29 with less than a minute to play. But the defense couldn’t hold; the Steelers sank to 4–5. Maybe it was time to panic. “We are undisciplined and not accountable,” Roethlisberger snapped afterward. “Is it players? Is it coaches? I don’t know, but we need to get there quick.”
Since then Pittsburgh has won seven straight. Much of that has been due to Bell’s steady excellence, particularly in a December snowstorm at Buffalo, where Roethlisberger turned in a three-interception stinker for his ugliest performance in eight years. But part of it has been because Roethlisberger knows how to rise to the moment. Take that masterly fourth quarter—14 of 17 for 164 yards and two TDs—in the division-clinching, 31–27 comeback win over the Ravens on Christmas Day as a sign. The last urgent push of his career has begun.
“He has taken on more responsibility now than he ever did,” says Rooney, “whether it’s talking to an individual player or taking the group after practice and going over things one more time just to make sure everybody’s got it. He’s doing what a great quarterback needs to do.
“Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes guys lose their way. A lot of things out there can get in a professional athlete’s way. As we all know.”
Cliff Hite first realized that Roethlisberger’s dance with fame could be dicey in October 1999. It was the senior QB’s first season starting for Hite’s Findlay High varsity team and, piloting a no-huddle, four-wide offense that was rare for Ohio schoolboys then, the 17-year-old rampaged across the state’s sportscape. Roethlisberger fired six touchdown passes in his first game, was offered a scholarship to Miami the next day and maintained a pace that would eventually yield 4,041 yards and 54 passing TDs. (He ran seven more in himself.) Reporters swarmed; suddenly the kid was special. Schoolmates were watching and talking about him constantly. Some teammates resented it.
One afternoon that fall, before practice, Roethlisberger walked into the football office and said, “I’m tired of this. I’m not doing it anymore.” Hite, who’s now an Ohio state senator, thought the boy was joking. But when practice started, Ben still hadn’t shown; Hite sent someone to fetch him. Roethlisberger eventually walked on the field, threw a few desultory balls and stopped. He’d always liked basketball better, anyway. Hite sat him down, saw his eyes fill with tears. “He was fed up with all the attention,” Hite says. “He was really upset. I think he had a moment.”
Rattled, Hite told Roethlisberger that his teammates needed him; the coach gave him just enough time to think and say a prayer. “And after those 10 minutes he came back and he was Ben again,” Hite says. “He’s been Ben ever since.”
Hite is speaking, here, about Roethlisberger the competitor, always a bit savvier and calmer than his peers. That made sense: His dad, Ken, had earned a football scholarship to play quarterback at Georgia Tech before blowing out a knee. Ben’s parents divorced when he was two; he was eight, and said to have been shooting baskets, when his mother, Ida, died in a car crash on her way to pick him up. The boy grew close to his stepmother, Brenda, but even now Roethlisberger points to the sky each time he scores. He has the Chinese character for mother tattooed over his heart.
In high school, the churchgoing Roethlisberger was not known to drink or date much; with adults, especially, he was jokey—“just like Will Ferrell,” Hite says—but not disrespectful. By his sophomore year, Roethlisberger was lighting up jayvee defenses and recognized by some of Findlay’s football staff as the school’s best QB. Hite notoriously—to future critics, anyway—started his own son, Ryan, over Roethlisberger in Ben’s junior year; he moved to receiver without complaint. “I don’t think his dad agreed with my decision,” Hite says, “but he never, ever questioned me, either.”
By the end of his redshirt freshman season Roethlisberger had broken every Miami single-season passing record and put NFL scouts on high alert. The resultant buzz also triggered the hometown radar, sensitive for any big-timing or perceived “change” in personality. When Roethlisberger returned to mostly white, conservative Findlay, with its surrounding corn and soybean fields—and a black population of just 1.4%—some people clucked at his seemingly new affinity for hip-hop culture. Part of that was small-mindedness, if not bigotry. “Ben’s black now,” one old classmate told her mother after seeing him during a visit home. “He was wearing, like, ‘black’ clothes.”
Part of it was amusement at perceived “airs”, street or otherwise. “Oh, my God—the bling,” Cliff Hite says. “He had that big chain, he was talking differently; he would come home and everybody would go, What . . . is . . . this?”
Of course, plenty of young white people love rap music and urban style, even in Findlay. Whether Roethlisberger heard the scoffing and became disenchanted is unclear, but by the time the Steelers chose him with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, a decided chill had set in between star and hometown; some old teammates found him growing more arrogant, distant. Roethlisberger still had a handful of trusted close friends, still called his old mentors “Coach.” But now he traveled with an entourage, expected restaurants to comp his meals and drinks. His goofy humor had gained an edge.
In 2005, after Roethlisberger’s game-saving shoestring tackle against the Colts became one of the key moments of Pittsburgh’s run to a fifth Lombardi Trophy, Hite quipped to a reporter that, yes, he’d taught the kid how to tackle. When Ben returned to Findlay soon after, Hite told him he’d made the whole town proud.
“And he said, ‘Well, I guess I owe it all to you, huh?’ ” Hite recalls. “He wasn’t joking, I don’t think. He was acting like he was being a jerk about it, but I don’t know if he actually was or not. Ben is an actor.”
By then, a 50-foot Nike banner featuring Roethlisberger and the words This is Findlay dominated downtown. Tony’s Restaurant & Pub featured a $7 Big Ben burger; a local radio station was broadcasting Steelers games; two bars had become Steelers havens—all of this in the heart of Browns country. At 24, Roethlisberger was a celebrity, and shrewd enough to be wary of it. Once, on his way to visit his grandmother in nearby Lima, he stopped by to see his old hoops coach and AD at home in Findlay. Snodgrass was thrilled.
“I was kind of in awe of this fame-and-fortune thing,” Snodgrass says. “At the time, we all lived it: Ohmygosh! Ben’s in town!”
After their visit, as he walked Roethlisberger out the door, Snodgrass found himself gushing. “Ben, it’s unbelievable the power you have,” he said. “That you could stop at a gas station and just make some kid’s life—the power you have to do good. . . .”
Roethlisberger cut him short. “Or to do bad,” he said.
Alison Hall has been the executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape since Roethlisberger’s rookie year. This September she was standing in an all but empty South Side bar when another woman walked in wearing a black T-shirt with Roethlisberger’s name written in pink on the back and a number 7 below it.
“I’d like to go and ask, like, What are you thinking?” Hall says. But if she confronted every female in the quarterback’s jersey worn in Pittsburgh—where his is the second most popular, behind Brown’s—there would be time for little else. Still, Hall is most tempted when sighting one worn by a little girl. “Like, Really?,” she says. “You can’t rally for another player?”
Hall has her own answer. Autumn Sundays are still dedicated to watching the Steelers in her family’s Squirrel Hill home. Alison’s daughter, Alissa, was a high school junior the year Big Ben won 13 straight and broke local hero Dan Marino’s rookie passing marks; she asked for his jersey that Christmas and wore it constantly. He was only six years older and thus, in teenage-crush calculus, obtainable. “Oh,” Alissa would say, “I’m going to marry Ben.”
Then she went off to college, and by the time she started coming home and hitting the South Side with friends, Roethlisberger’s reputation had started to take a beating: rude, self-centered and a bad tipper to boot. Still, Alissa wore his jersey for games. “Then,” she says, “when the accusations started, it got complicated.”
The first allegation, in a 2009 court filing by 31-year-old Andrea McNulty, claimed that in July ’08, Roethlisberger asked the Harrah’s Lake Tahoe executive casino host to come to his room to fix an unbroken TV, blocked her exit and raped her; she asked for more than $440,000 in damages. Roethlisberger counter-sued, calling the sex consensual, and the terms of a ’12 settlement have never been disclosed. (McNulty’s lawyer did not return calls from SI.)
The second accusation came after a night of heavy drinking by all involved parties in Milledgeville and alleged that Roethlisberger raped a 20-year-old woman while they were alone in a club bathroom. In one of his few public statements on the matter, Roethlisberger told ESPN in 2010, “I never, never have and never will, ever, harm a female in the way I was accused of doing. I can promise you that.” (Through her attorney, the woman declined to speak to SI.)
That case soon fell apart due to a lack of physical evidence, a reportedly biased stance by Milledgeville law enforcement against the alleged victim in the immediate aftermath, and the decision by the accuser not to press charges. “They made it very clear—her lawyer, her father, her—that they did not want the case prosecuted,” says Bright, who spent 21 years as a Georgia DA before retiring in 2015. “But even without that, we didn’t have a case. And we knew it pretty much from the beginning.”
Still, though Roethlisberger was never charged in either instance, the court of public opinion had heard plenty of ugly evidence. Bright’s admonishment of Roethlisberger at a press conference—“Grow up”—set the tone for his return to public life. Renown, the narrative went, had eaten young Roethlisberger alive: He wasn’t bad so much as wildly immature, with core values still salvageable through family and faith.