Character (Ac)Counts: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger

Gregory Shamus

in which the author makes a case for the fact that people can change, and sometimes actually do...

In Sunday's Tribune-Review, Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton explained why he agreed to a contract extension which could severely limit his earning potential, assuming he continues to progress next season the way he has so far:

Morton said a primary focus was remaining with the organization that traded for him in 2009 and hung with him despite uneven performance and injury, which included Tommy John surgery in 2012..."(Testing free agency) - that's not what I wanted. I wanted to be here working with the men in that clubhouse and for the people in the city... Everything keeps going back to 2009 when they wanted me here in this organization when they traded for me. They kept giving me opportunities even when I failed."

This article is about another man whose organization gave him opportunities when he failed. In this case, however, the failure was not so much professional as personal. Unfortunately, nothing is really "personal" anymore when you are the face of a franchise.

This may be the most difficult articles of this series to write, for obvious reasons. There are those, even among Steeler Nation, who will never forgive Ben Roethlisberger for his alleged actions during his "Big Ben" days. (I call them the Big Ben days because Roethlisberger himself said, during the very long summer of 2010, that he had become someone even his own father didn't recognize through the corrupting power of fame and adulation. He asked to not be called that anymore.)

As many of us remember, during the lead-up to the 2010 Super Bowl there was a concerted effort by the media to get Ben to in effect confess his sins and beg the media for absolution. It did not endear him to the press that he refused to do so. (The fact that it would have been remarkably stupid of him to do so at a time when he could be slapped with another civil lawsuit at the very least didn't seem to generate any sympathy amongst the newshounds clamoring for blood.) As I wrote in an article at the time called Redemption Stories:

It's a lose-lose proposition for Ben - if he says "I was a jerk and I feel bad about it and I've tried to change," it will probably be interpreted by those who despise him as an admission of guilt, possibly guilt for more than just antisocial behavior. On the other hand, if he deflects such questions as he's done thus far, he will get articles like this one:

I then linked an article which I am not going to link now, but trust me, it was ugly. And as I noted at the time it wasn't by any means the worst one I found. The point I was making in the article was this, basically—we turn celebrities of whatever stamp into idols, worship them, and then turn viciously on them if they reveal human frailty. And even those who don't are being watched carefully for the first hint of a flaw.

And once we've turned on them, they then owe us abject apologies for failing us. But in a very real sense we have created the monster in the first place. As Ivan Cole said in a very thoughtful comment to the same article:

I think one thing that needs to be said about this that cannot be emphasized enough is the degree that how we choose to treat our celebrities is complicit in their eventual failures. I recently told a friend that if someone dropped tens of millions of dollars, plus fame on me when I was in my early 20s (make sure to factor in the skewed lifestyle that is necessary to achieve extreme proficiency in any endeavor) that the chances would be pretty good that I would be an asshole. I would be immature by definition and would have a terrible time negotiating the combination of fawning acquiescence and boorish intrusions into my private space that is an unavoidable component of the situation.

I'm sure that most people reading this would immediately respond "Not me!" But truth be told, a lot of folks have considerable problems successfully managing a fraction of the good fortune that has been showered on Ben and others like him. More to the point, there is something spiritually pathological about the distance that many of us create between ourselves and others. Want to see less situations like Ben and Vick and Stallworth? To be crude we can begin by getting off of our knees, taking our lips off their butts and our hands out of their pockets. Let them enjoy a meal or a drink from time to time without having something shoved in their face to sign or a demand for photos.

But that was then. Now, over three years later, a very interesting thing has happened. Last week, without much fanfare, Ben Roethlisberger was announced to have been named the Steelers' Walter Payton Man of the Year. To see why this is such a big deal, given his history, let's look at what the award represents.

The award was originally named just the NFL Man of the Year. Here is what the NFL website says about it:

The Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award is granted to the player who demonstrates outstanding contributions to society off-the-field while handling himself in an exemplary fashion in uniform.

It was renamed after Walter Payton's death as a way to honor him. He was considered one of the best running backs to ever play the game, and was extremely active in charitable and humanitarian causes, particularly those having to do with neglected, abused, and underprivileged children. Although the NFL verbiage doesn't make this entirely clear, the phrase "handling himself in an exemplary fashion in uniform" means the chosen player excels at his position. He probably shouldn't be known for punching out officials, either...

Each team winner also becomes his team's nominee for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Only four Steelers have won it since 1970, when it was first given—Franco Harris, Joe Greene, Lynn Swann, and Jerome Bettis. (Johnny Unitas was the first winner.)

Previous Steelers award winners in the recent past are Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Max Starks, and Hines Ward, none of whom won the NFL honor. I would guess, given his history, that Roethlisberger has a snowball's chance in hell of winning the league-wide award. Especially as Roger Goodell is on the committee who chooses the winner.

Neal wrote an article when the award was announced, quoting Steelers.com's enumeration of the charitable causes with which Roethlisberger has been associated. They also summarized his on-field accomplishments, which are impressive:

He holds almost every passing record for Pittsburgh, including completions, passing yards, passer rating, completion percentage and career touchdown passes during the regular season. He has been named AFC Offensive Player of the Week nine times and was recently named AFC Offensive Player of the Month (November, 2013). A two-time Pro Bowler, Roethlisberger guided the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and XLIII.

My first question when I heard about the award is, who chooses the team winner? After extensive research (i.e. Google) the answer is, I don't know. I assume the player is chosen by the management and/or the owner(s), as this isn't the sort of award which would make sense for the players to vote for. It isn't a popularity contest—it is supposed to represent the team by highlighting the extensive charitable activities of one of their best players.

If I'm correct in this assumption, it seems hard to believe the management/owners would choose a player about whom they still have concerns, character-wise. This speaks volumes to me about the depth and genuine nature of the changes Roethlisberger has made in his life.

These changes aren't only showing up off the field. Roethlisberger has never been accused (except by himself) of taking an intellectual approach to the game, and he once said he didn't touch a football in the offseason. Fair or not, the obvious conclusion was he relied on his natural abilities to get him out of situations he probably wouldn't have been in at all if he were, say, Peyton Manning.

But we've gradually been seeing a new side of his game. He came to camp in top condition. He has obviously spent a lot of  time studying film. But perhaps the greatest sign of Roethlisberger's increasing maturity is that he could, however reluctantly, figure out how to work with an offensive coordinator he didn't want who was attempting to impose a system he didn't like. (It works the other way around too, I suspect. I'm guessing he didn't care for Todd Haley and thought the previous system was just fine.)

I'm fairly certain at least a good portion of the compromising was done by Todd Haley, but nonetheless Roethlisberger learned from Haley, and it's paying off.

This is no small thing. I went to graduate school later in life, after having accomplished a reasonable level of success in my field, and it was sometimes quite difficult to hear about things I needed to change, things which had appeared to serve me well. Some of them were pretty fundamental changes, and that isn't very comfortable, but they were necessary for me to be able to take the next step.

Although I was mentally prepared to make the changes, all of my muscle memory, instincts, and even my ego were opposed to at least some of them. I went to graduate school by my own choice. I can't imagine how much more difficult it would have been get over the resistance if my employers had said "You're going to study with this man, and you're going to do what he says."

Okay, so Ben appears to get in the occasional mild zinger during his press conferences. Frankly, I suspect most of them would never make the news cycle had the whole situation not gone down quite so publicly, what with Arian's "retirement" after Mike Tomlin had said he would be back and all the other stuff we don't need to dredge up now. But everyone is looking for a story, particularly if it speaks poorly about someone in the public eye. I don't doubt that there was considerable tension in the quarterbacks room for a long time. But Ben had the choice to sulk or to make the best of it, and he chose the latter.

And in case it sounds as if I'm reaching here for things to praise Roethlisberger for, let me be quite clear. It's pretty difficult to go into the NFL as a highly-feted and paid 21 year old and conduct both your personal and professional life so as to be beyond reproach. But what is really difficult is to mess up as badly and comprehensively as Ben Roethlisberger did, face up to what you've become, and work successfully to become a better person.

And don't discount the difficulties of where you started out. Although Roethlisberger was considered to be a good character player coming into the NFL, I get the impression that in the context of the NFL draft "good character" means you haven't screwed up in a way that wasn't able to be glossed over, and you are a hard worker. Does that describe all "good character" players? Heavens, no. But I don't think the baseline standard is terribly high.

It didn't take long before Ben's first public "troubles," as the Irish might say, started bringing stories out of the woodwork about his behavior towards people who didn't interest him. "Boorish" appears to be the nicest way to put it. I'm not going to run through the litany, but it wasn't attractive. It's a lot easier to persuade people you are a "good" person if you have a naturally pleasant personality and a healthy dose of conflict avoidance. It also helps if you are sensible enough to not drink very much when you are out in public.

When any of us behave badly, particularly if that bad behavior is of long standing, there's a need to continue the behavior as a way of, essentially, not admitting there was anything wrong with it in the first place. The only way out is to retrace your steps. And in the process one necessarily comes face to face with just how ugly one has been.

This is not pleasant for anyone. To do it in the public eye, with the vast majority of people assuming it is put on, fake, and only done because of stark necessity makes it even harder. Back in 2010, we all felt only time would tell whether he was genuinely trying to change. I think we can, in 2013, determine that he was, and did. Is he perfect? I doubt it. Are you? I certainly am not.

The final thing which I believe displays how far Roethlisberger has come is in the area of leadership. It is very telling to note it wasn't until his fifth year Ben was even voted a team captain. A quick glance at this year's list of team captains around the league reveals the only teams on which the quarterback is not an offensive team captain are in two categories—the few teams, like Green Bay, who elect captains on a weekly basis, and the teams who didn't begin the season with a settled situation at quarterback.

And of course the players made a strong statement in 2010 when they did not elect Roethlisberger as one of their captains, despite his having been one for the previous two seasons. But I think in a very real sense it isn't until the very recent past, perhaps even this season, that Ben has emerged as a true leader. And frankly, this was probably partially due to his need to be at peace with himself before he could be an effective leader. Could he lead them down the field in a late game-winning drive in the previous years? Yes, and he often did. But that seemed to grow out of his almost pathological need to win. His leadership now seems to be as much about taking care of his players as it is about winning.

Not that he's lost that will to win. He wouldn't be a "normal" quarterback, or an effective one, if he had. But to my eyes Ben Roethlisberger has learned that you have to conquer yourself before you can conquer the world. And for that I honor him.

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