Ben Roethlisberger will not reflect. That is the first protection he has in place.
The aging quarterback knows the score. He is acutely aware of the clock. There will never be enough time for him to engineer a comeback, not in this particular game, anyway. It is hard to not already feel defeated.
Experience tells him how this will go.
“Almost every year, someone wants to do a reflective type piece,” Roethlisberger says. “And it’s tough, because we’ve moved on. And even if you talk about the good, it still gets brought up somehow.”
He isn’t looking for sympathy. He understands that not many people out there will ever feel sorry for Ben Roethlisberger.
Today is his annual football camp for kids. It’s a great day for him because he doesn’t have to be guarded. The eyes of children don’t come with the filter of the past.
The image they see is of the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, Big Ben, No. 7, coming down to their level and doing drills, throwing them passes and yelling encouragement.
“Three...two...one...BEN!” they chant after the completion of each teaching session.
They see their hero as a father of three whose wife, Ashley, walks around the field at Bethel Park High School with their newborn, Bodie, strapped onto her shoulders. They see Ben’s father, Ken, going through drills with Ben, and his stepmother, Brenda, keeping watch on Ben’s two older children, Benjamin and Baylee. They see a family, maybe one that’s not so different from their own, enjoying Father’s Day weekend.
“Three...two...one...BEN!” they chant again.
The kids see blond-haired Baylee running into her father’s arms to sit in his lap as he takes a break from camp. They hear him doing his goofy, high-pitched baby talk.
“What’s on your shirt?!" he says to the 2-year-old. “Did you spill juice on your shirt?!” “Yeah.” Baylee admits, smiling at him. “Can I have a kiss?" he asks.
What do the campers’ parents see? Well, he can’t control that.
There is no way to know exactly who Ben is today, which is why he is careful about seeming like he’s trying to push a narrative. He would rather not try at all to win back the public than be viewed as a phony — a decision he made six years ago that still impacts him.
What is for sure is that his circumstances have changed: He’s a 34-year-old man who is building a home for his family, up near Sewickley. He loves being outside, whether it’s mowing the grass at home by himself or hunting, fishing or golfing with his dad and his tight circle of buddies. He goes to church regularly on Sunday mornings, even on some game days with later kickoffs.
Ben isn’t going to reveal much about his faith, because what good could come from him talking publicly about his relationship with Jesus Christ? His pastor, Jamie Kendrew of Christ Church at Grove Farm in Sewickley, wants him to start using his platform. He believes Ben has a beautiful, impactful story to tell.
But, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t ready. He’s waiting on the perfect time, that moment when his personal and football journeys converge to put him and the Steelers back on the big stage. Then, the whole world would have to listen.
SPEAKING FOR BEN
Ben Roethlisberger has his sanctuaries. There’s his home north of Pittsburgh, where the innocence and energy of children bounce off the walls. There’s his father’s sprawling land west of town, which Ben has turned into his personal playground. There’s the Steelers facility on the South Side, where he can immerse himself in the game that has given him everything.
He nearly forsook it all, of course, and that’s what brought him out here to the rolling hills of Sewickley more than six years ago. He slipped into the back of the worship service geared toward the under-40 crowd, the one with the preachers wearing jeans, the one with the guitars riffing, and just took it in. It was that day that he met Jamie Kendrew, who recently received the go-ahead from Ben to have a conversation with a visitor.
Ben must really trust Kendrew. The quarterback doesn’t trust easily.
“Sugar or cream?" asks Kendrew, whom Ben refers to as “Pastor Jamie.”
The coffee is Ugandan because Pastor Jamie just went on a mission trip there. Last week, he was in the Dominican Republic for church business. He came home and was elated to find out he was being given the chance to talk about Ben.
He does it quite often around town. You could call him Ben’s public defender. Just the other day, he heard a woman saying disparaging things about the quarterback. He stopped her and told her about the Ben he has gotten to know.
“It breaks my heart how, in our culture, there are everyday Joes who are experiencing some of the same things he went through,” Pastor Jamie says. “They’re able to do so quietly, and when they repent, they’re allowed to do so. Unfortunately with Ben, he has a God in Heaven that has forgiven him, but a larger population of the city that won’t let him move past it.”
Many who read this story, in Pittsburgh and even more so across the country, might have to suspend disbelief. Taking Pastor Jamie at his word that “he’s a Bigger Ben now than he’s ever been,” or that “the guy really loves Jesus,” will not be possible for some, particularly today, viewed through the lens of an America that is more aware than ever before about male athletes skating through the judicial system when they have allegedly harmed women.
Some can’t help remembering the Ben who was accused of sexual assault twice in the span of two years — one incident coming in Lake Tahoe, Nev., in June 2008, the other near his offseason home in Milledgeville, Ga., in March 2010. In the first case, a civil suit, a settlement was reached. In the second highly controversial case, charges ultimately were not brought against Ben.
Those who didn’t have to cheer Ben by virtue of the black and gold he wore on Sundays left him at that dark place when he needed to return to the faith that he was brought up with in Findlay, Ohio. And most didn’t bother picking him back up as he silently put his life back together.
Upon hearing that Ben is now a believer, a visceral reaction emerges either way. That is the nature of religion — either you feel it or you don’t — and that is the nature of a society dealing with a celebrity who fell off his pedestal.
The framework of the faith puts Ben in simpler context. He’s the prodigal son, and Pastor Jamie, a sharp young man with his own family, was there to welcome him home.
Pastor Jamie performed the required pre-marriage counseling for Ben and Ashley. More often, Pastor Jamie says, he talks with Ben about faith on hunting trips than in this office. He views Ben joining the church’s softball team and attending a children’s production a few weeks ago, even though his own kids weren’t involved, as signs of growth — especially when, up to this point, Ben never received any attention for his actions at Grove Farm.
“It hasn’t been a public spectacle, because again, he’s doing it for the right reasons,” Pastor Jamie says. “He’s not doing it for the city of Pittsburgh. He’s doing it because he wants to become the man of God that God has created him to be.”
Pastor Jamie worries that he’s saying too much. He jokes that he may be getting himself in trouble. But he has wanted to tell this story for a while now, and, while Ben Roethlisberger may not want to bring up the past, Pastor Jamie is more than willing.
In September 2010, as Steeler Nation sat down on its sofas to watch the opener against the Atlanta Falcons, and 65,000 fans packed Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger was in a kayak on the Clarion River, about 90 miles north of Pittsburgh at Cook Forest State Park.
Pastor Jamie and another pastor had taken Ben and his father, Ken, out of the city to get the quarterback’s mind off his suspension, which had recently been reduced by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to four games. In a month, he could be back on the field, but nothing good was going to come from Ben feeling any game-day vibes. His only request was that their cabin have the capability of finding SportsCenter. No, he wouldn’t watch the game live, but he at least wanted highlights.
“We figured, anybody that’s going through something like that needs some headspace,” Pastor Jamie says. “It was good for him to unplug. You don’t talk a whole lot when you kayak. It’s a solitude thing.
“For me, what I really remember was just the way his dad loved on him. He stood right there beside him and said, ‘You’re my son, I love you.’ ”
Ken and Brenda had raised Ben and his sister, Carlee, in the church. When they moved to Western Pennsylvania from Ohio to help steer Ben back toward the morals of his upbringing, they had started searching for churches and eventually thought Grove Farm was the place their son could be comfortable when he was ready. The church had a no-harassment policy with their congregation about athletes, many of whom live nearby in the upscale community.
A couple of days after the Milledgeville allegations went public, Ben had nowhere to turn but inward. He told a story at the time, as he tried to show remorse for the embarrassment he had caused the Steelers and their fans, about driving and listening to the lyrics from a Toby Mac song that mirrored a reading from the gospel — I don’t want to gain the whole world, and lose my soul — and pulling over the car out of emotion.
After that first worship service in March 2010, Pastor Jamie remembers his little boy, Brandon, then 6 years old, approaching Roethlisberger.
“You’re Big Ben,” Brandon said. “Yeah, I am,” Ben said.
“Do you believe in Jesus? ” Brandon said. “Yeah, I do,” Ben said.
Pastor Jamie remembers tears welling up in Ben’s eyes. “I think Ben was really struggling in his soul,” Pastor Jamie says.
One of those first Sundays, Pastor Jamie preached about how the hardest person to forgive in the world is yourself.
“And that when God forgives us, he takes those sins and throws it as far as the east is to the west so that they never meet,” Pastor Jamie says. “Once that sin is forgiven, it’s gone. And when you say sorry a second time, God says, ‘What are you talking about? ’ ”
Ben needed that message. Sports Illustrated, whose magazine covers Ben put all over his bedroom wall as a boy, wrote a cover story that May about how Ben had lost his way and detailed the behavior that made him infamous, not famous, around town. In July, The New York Times went to Findlay to quote people Ben knew in high school about how they could see early on he wouldn’t handle notoriety well.
“The first time you saw all the gloves pulled off an athlete was really Tiger Woods,” says Ryan Tollner, Ben’s agent. “The same thing happened with Ben. The article in SI was really challenging for him...a magazine he read as a kid.”
Perhaps Ben was the last person to realize that “Big Ben” had taken over.
Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who also lived on a poster on young Ben’s bedroom wall, had become an acquaintance of Ben’s in those early years as Ben pursued a friendship. Kelly remembers Ben showing up at his annual golf tournament outside of Buffalo, N.Y., with his bodyguards. Kelly recalls that he, Joe Montana and Dan Marino got a kick out of it. Who needs a bodyguard in Western New York? Of course, the legendary quarterbacks couldn’t have taken that one instance and forecast where Ben was headed.
After Milledgeville and the suspension, Tollner didn’t know what else to do but to start talking with some firms who handle damage control and crisis management for celebrities. Ben lost his beef jerky endorsement and had become untouchable from a public relations perspective.
“We were essentially going to line up like a 60 Minutes feature,” Tollner says, “and ‘These are the things we’re going to project, this is what you’re going to say, this is how we’re going to start winning people back.’ After enough discussion, Ben said to me, ‘Why? I only want to do the media that the team requires me to do. I don’t want to do anything that appears like I am trying to win people back by convincing them of something. I want my actions to convince people of who I am.’
“It became apparent to him that the media thing was so out of control, there was no chance to wrap your arms around it. He accepted they’re going to write what they want. He decided at that point, I’m not going to give anybody any reason to say or write anything negative about me.”
During this time, Ben found himself thinking about Ashley, a native of New Castle whom he had dated in the past.
“I recall him telling me, ‘There’s a girl that I’ve dated that I always thought was potentially the one,’ ” Tollner says. “And maybe he wasn’t mature enough for her. I think he felt, ‘I don’t expect she will return my call, but I’m going to reach out and just see if she’d be willing to be friends.’ That’s how he approached her, and they did. It was a friendship. It took time.”
Ashley was a Christian, too, and, according to Tollner, encouraged Ben to return to church.
On Thanksgiving Day 2010, Ben texted Pastor Jamie that he was about to propose. He asked him to pray for them.
Later, Ben texted again. “She said yes,” it read.
In six months, Ben Roethlisberger had made a lot of big decisions. A new life was taking shape faster than he squandered the old one. But could anybody outside his circle be happy for him?
Six years have passed since Ben first entered the doors of Grove Farm in the midst of a personal crisis, and Pastor Jamie believes that’s enough time for the public to be able to view the quarterback as genuine.
But, as Ben embarks on his 13th season with the Steelers, he isn’t as sure as Pastor Jamie that people are ready to listen to him. In Ben’s mind, the only moment that makes sense is after he wins his next Super Bowl. Then and only then will he have earned the reflection.
“He and I disagree on that pretty strongly,” Pastor Jamie says. “We’ve had lots of conversations where I’ve told him you need to use your platform, but I think there’s goodness in his patience. I think God is continuing to work in his heart. I think his children are working on his heart.”
Tollner says Ben is opening himself up to the idea of doing more endorsements and that there have been some conversations. When ABC’s hit reality TV show “The Bachelorette” filmed a segment in Pittsburgh back in the spring and offered Ben a cameo, he accepted the role mostly because Ashley is a big fan of the series and he knew she would love him being a part of it.
On the night of June 7, millions across America tuned into the show. Viewers were just as shocked to see Ben Roethlisberger on screen during the cast’s visit to Heinz Field as the men trying to win JoJo Fletcher’s affection by staging a football competition.
“Holy [expletive],” a contestant named Vinny said, “that is Ben Roethlisberger standing right in front of me. Are you kidding me right now?”
Ben was joined by former Steelers teammates Hines Ward and Brett Keisel on the field, but Ben took center stage.
“So,” he asked JoJo, “you have a couple favorites? I don’t know if you’re allowed to tell me.”
JoJo gave Ben a little feedback on some of the contestants.
“Hopefully,” Ben said, “we can do our small part to help you find true love. We wish you nothing but the best. Go get them now!”
Ben and JoJo hugged.
But what seemed like a harmless public interaction for the quarterback would only show once again that every appearance nationally comes with some risk. Twitter critics spewed venom about the show’s choice to have Ben on, and the popular culture blog Jezebel penned a story with the headline “The Bachelorette’s Episode with Ben Roethlisberger Was, Fittingly, All About Male Violence.”
Ben’s retreat from the public eye was what felt right to him, but it hasn’t helped him repair his image.
His current Q Score, a measure of a celebrity’s popularity among a representative population, suggests that 27 percent of people are likely to have a negative opinion of him, compared to 18 percent positive, according to Henry Schafer with The Q Scores Company. Schafer says the only three NFL players with higher negative Q Scores are Johnny Manziel, Jay Cutler and Colin Kaepernick.
“After all those allegations took place,” Schafer says, “I don’t know how much effort he put into trying to improve his image other than kind of fading into the background.”
Ben hasn’t given up, especially in Pittsburgh, but he hasn’t lived the last six years hoping to be a national redemption tale.
“Obviously, this is my home,” Ben says, “and you want to be loved in your home. You want to keep trying to win everybody back, but it will never happen. You want people to like you, but you just have to be you.”
Ben has taken solace in the forgiveness of family, friends and teammates.
He may not have gotten a revisionist piece written in Sports Illustrated, but he did earn the respect of his childhood idol, Jim Kelly, who invites him up to Western New York every winter for snowmobiling.
This summer, after Bodie was born, Ben called Kelly and told him that he and Ashley had decided to give their son the middle name of Hunter, after Jim’s son who died of Krabbe Disease at the age of 8.
“That touched me,” Kelly says.
Pastor Jamie would call that a growth moment. It’s an example of Ben doing something meaningful for someone else without needing any attention for it. Kelly brought the story to the public, not Ben.
But how will it be perceived? As a sign of newfound maturity or as an insincere effort to appear like a good guy? The Steelers quarterback lives in a box of his own making. The only time Ben can control the outcome is on Sundays.
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