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Roethlisberger is back on the field, but is he rehabilitated?
By Ralph Vacchiano
DALLAS — Ben Roethlisberger, with two Super Bowl rings at the tender age of 28, is already on the fast tract to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A third ring would make the vote a mere formality when his name finally comes up.
And yes, he is back, whether you like it or not. The NFL says he can play, no matter what happened in that dingy Georgia barroom last April. There wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute him anyway, so the law says he is a free man.
But just because he took advantage of his second chance — or lucky break, depending on your perspective — and returned from his brief suspension at the beginning of the season to lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV doesn’t mean that Roethlisberger is a changed man. It doesn’t mean that he’s a better man, either. People may tell stories of redemption throughout this week and proclaim him healed and changed.
The only thing we know about Roethlisberger for sure, though, is he’s a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback. He can’t really change his life and perception off of the field just by what he does on it.
That’s the danger this week, of course, as thousands of media descend on Texas eager to tell Roethlisberger’s story again. They’ll start with the seedy details — maybe — which include the gripping account by a young woman who told police she was trapped in that barroom in Milledgeville, Ga. while Roethlisberger forced her to have sex, all allegedly of course. Then they’ll move on to the six-game suspension handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that was eventually reduced to four.
After that, the story will go, the arrow only pointed up. Roethlisberger stayed out of trouble, changed his personality, even won an award from the Pittsburgh media for his cooperation this year. With his cleansed soul, he led the Steelers to the NFC North championship, the AFC championship and maybe soon the NFL championship, too.
Here’s the thing, though: Until more time has passed, until he proves otherwise in some meaningful, non-football way, he’s still that lout who was accused of rape, the knucklehead who rode motorcycles without a helmet, who reportedly acted like a jerk around his adopted hometown. Yes, he’s innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But the NFL found something disturbing enough about his behavior that Goodell slammed him with a fairly hefty suspension. The Steelers owners were so distressed that they publicly rebuked him and, according to reports, considered trading their franchise, Hall of Fame-bound quarterback, too.
Those are the facts that we know — that and the fact that he returned from all that to play the quarterback position very well. That’s all we know, no matter how many times the words “changed” and “redeemed” are suddenly and inappropriately thrown around.
What’s really different, other than that he’s regained his ability to throw the ball? How do any of us really know he’s not still capable of the unspeakable crimes he was alleged to have committed? Based on what? Because he’s still a good quarterback? Because he’s the leader of a Super Bowl team?
Or because Roethlisberger says so?
“I think you always go through changes in life,” Roethlisberger said this week. “When you’re faced with challenges in life, you find ways to try to overcome them. Just like when there are doubters and naysayers that challenged me in a football sense, it challenges me to rise above. So in the same way as me being a better person, people saying ‘You can’t do it’, it makes me want to rise to the occasion and be the best I can be.”
Good for him if he’s telling the truth, and more power to him, too. Everyone deserves a second chance, and again nobody but he, his alleged victim and several of his silent bodyguards really know the truth of what happened when he was celebrating his 28th birthday. If the victim wouldn’t prosecute and the Georgia District Attorney couldn’t prosecute, it’s not the job of any of us to do it for them.
But it will take a lot more than a few thousand yards, an arm full of touchdown passes, and a trip to Super Bowl XLV to really, truly prove that Roethlisberger isn’t what everyone thought he was. He’ll need more than the game to prove he’s a better man.
“People ask you ‘What do you want on your obituary, your tombstone?’” Roethlisberger said. “And I think, you want somebody to say ‘He’s a good person, a God-fearing person that was loyal to his family and put family first — family and God first — and enjoyed the way that he played the game of football, enjoyed football and just lived every day like it was his last.’”
Give him the latter half of that eulogy. A lot of people enjoy the way he plays and he certainly seems to love life.
But spare the world the stories of redemption and a soul that’s been saved, even if he is the one holding the Lombardi Trophy when this season is over. Football players may be treated like gods, but the sport isn’t all-powerful. Roethlisberger may be a better player, but it’ll take more than a few pinpoint passes to truly prove that he’s a better man.