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Roethlisberger Sets 'Example' With Steelers

SCI publisher Jim Wexell gets personal to shed light on covering Ben Roethlisberger these last seven years.

OK, it's soul-baring time, but before you turn away I'm going to titillate you with the plot: It includes violence.

So, I put this TV reporter against the wall - gently, mind you. Well, not really gently, but I grabbed him by the lapels because he told me not to walk away from him after he had just got up and in my face and told me what he had thought about me. 

I tried to walk away and he hollered not to, so I softly - well, not really softly - but I did put my hands on him and asked him if he was trying to threaten me. When he said no, I left.

He didn't leave. He had me suspended from the Steelers facility for a month for this act of violence, and when I returned Art Rooney asked me if I was all right. I was. James Harrison saw me and nodded. I nodded back. Mike Tomlin saw me and told me it was good to have me back at the facility. I thanked him for his support throughout.

I bring this all up because of the next guy. 

Troy Polamalu, with whom I had, and still have, a more friendly relationship with than most of the others, saw me and wasn't so friendly.

"Oh, good thing you're back," he said, sarcasm dripping. "We really needed a bad-ass reporter around here."

It was a shot. And for that I felt bad.

Now, I bring THAT up because Polamalu was the first guy I went to after Ben Roethlisberger's infamous incident in Milledgeville in 2010.

I really didn't know what Troy would say, but did consider him the conscience of the team. If he disapproved, he would say so. If he didn't hear all of the facts, as none of us had, he would say that. If he approved of Ben enough to tell us reporters to give him another chance, even if Ben had done wrong, he would say that as well.

Here's what Polamalu said:

"This will be the great example. Everything’s not always peachy, and not everybody has that unblemished image, but I think for him to have that repentance, you know, the way that he’s going to have to continue to live his life, is going to be the great example – I think a better example than what somebody else could provide."

I've always remembered that the conscience of the team seemed to be excited about what Roethlisberger could provide by means of example moving forward.

In light of the regurgitation of all of Roethlisberger's past mistakes - real or imagined - that have been dredged up this week by Sports Illustrated, it's important that Roethlisberger's behavior, or as Polamalu would put it, Roethlisberger's "example," since then, be examined as well.

To that end, Roethlisberger has carried two families - one at home with his wife of the last five-and-a-half years, Ashley, and their three small children, and the other, at the UPMC Roooney Sports Complex, with his football family of 52 rather large children. 

He seems to be carrying them both rather well, but I can only speak for the second family as a reporter who's been on the job since the first day he showed up. 

We, in fact, voted Roethlisberger the Chief Award at the end of that troublesome 2010 season for cooperation with the media, and it wasn't so much because we thought he had turned his life around, but - at least with me - because we wanted to prove the point that Roethlisberger really hadn't been the jerk to the media so many national guys suspected and therefore reported.

Not that Roethlisberger was a great quote, but he always had a minute to give you a unique quote, and his comments always carry more gravitas. In fact, I hadn't had a bad moment with Roethlisberger until AFTER he had vowed to become the nicer family man we see today. 

I was out one night during training camp a few years ago and came upon Roethlisberger, Brett Keisel and Keisel's friends from Wyoming. They had become my friends after we met several years earlier, and so I sat down with them all at Keisel's request. Some time later, Roethlisberger became unhappy about a comment I had made and he called me the most negative writer in town.

OK, that was fine. We went back and forth with it and he remained steadfast. I offered my hand in peace, he shook it and I left. The next day, Roethlisberger saw me walking across campus, stopped the cart on which he was riding and went out of his way to apologize. I tried to wave it off, tell him there was no need, but he apologized again. It should be described as a profuse apology, and I had no doubt it was sincere.

Did he need that for his public image? Absolutely not. 

Did he need to for his team to win a game? Of course not.

But this "example" was just one since Polamalu gave the ready-set-go on Roethlisberger's second life during the spring of 2010.

In the locker room and on the field, that's where Roethlisberger earns his pay, and of course that's where he's had the greatest impact as a leader these past seven years. Maurkice Pouncey was a rookie in 2010 and has lockered close to Roethlisberger ever since. 

"He's a true leader," Pouncey said. "He's accountable. When you watch the way he plays, you see how much he cares about this team. I've been with him a long time and seen the growth. I always thought he was a great leader, but now, to be this late in his career and the way he's running things around here, it's awesome. You can really appreciate that."

Pouncey, of course, was the center for another great leader in college at the University of Florida.

"Ben's totally different," Pouncey said. "(Tim) Tebow was more outgoing, yelling around, pumping the guys up. Ben's more the guy who's 'I'm going to give you this speech and expect you to go out here and follow my lead.' I kind of like that approach a little bit better."

Roethlisberger gave the players his "Follow Me" speech after a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in November. It was the Steelers' third consecutive loss and Roethlisberger urged his team to just pay attention to what he does and how he does it and they would end up righting the ship.

"You could really tell in his demeanor when he said it that he meant it," Pouncey said. "It was in the way he was speaking, the way he looked at us, the way he went out there and played. Whenever you give that type of speech and go out there and back it up, that's why you follow people like that."

They did. And they lost.

But it wasn't because of anything Roethlisberger had done. In fact, his fake spike and touchdown pass to Antonio Brown would've beaten the Dallas Cowboys that day had the defense not blown the lead with nine seconds left.

However, the Steelers did turn it around. They reeled off seven consecutive wins following the loss that followed the speech, and Roethlisberger has had good days and bad during the run. But the bad days have been countered by some great days by players such as Brown, Harrison, Le'Veon Bell, Chris Boswell, etc., and that's fine with Roethlisberger.

"Ben wants to win," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "I mean, he's in it for one reason that I can see and that is to put another trophy in that room. We're in the thing now and every game's the most important game of the year and he's obviously acting like that. I really believe he doesn't care whether we do it running, throwing, even if we called Wildcat with him out there. He's going to do whatever gives us the best chance to win."

Haley's been here since 2012, and he came with a reputation that was almost as bad as Roethlisberger's. But Haley didn't care about stuff the outsiders were saying.

"I'm a big go-by-what-you-see guy, not what you hear," Haley said. "He and I even talked about it, that 'I don't want you to pre-conceive notions about me, and I won't about you. I want you to go by what you see, and it takes time.' From that point on, I've seen a mature guy playing the quarterback position with great ability. I've seen nothing out of him other than a guy who wants to be great and wants this team to be great and play in big, big games."

Haley said "there are so many" examples of Roethlisberger's leadership, and came up with one that might only be meaningful to coaches.

"In individual, which is a 10-15 minute period in practice that everywhere I've been coaches have run that period, he made it known to me that that's something he'd like to have some say in. And I turned it completely over to him," Haley said. "So in that 10-15 minutes, he's communicating, talking. He's got a plan every day, every week, every year that I think is a big part of us growing and getting better as a group, and I think that's just on-field leadership. 

"All you've got to do is look at these receivers, tight ends and backs. When he says a word, their ears are up. They're like a German Shepherd at a drug bust. Their eyes are open wide, their ears are up. Any word that's said by him, they're listening, and I think that's a great example of leadership that's important in this game."

Haley has been around all types of quarterbacks and of course their leadership skills vary.

"The good ones all lead in different ways and it's not all rah-rah and in the public," he said. "For Ben, it's a little more subtle. If you're here and you're watching, you see it. Like during run periods, he's told to take off just to try to rest him. But he jumps in there and takes them all. Little things like that make a big difference to young guys."

And they've made a big difference for Roethlisberger in his second life. 

In fact, his "example" has been quite the show, as Polamalu knew it would be. 

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