Roethlisberger faced locker room issues
PITTSBURGH -- He set an NFL record by winning the first 15 regular-season games he started at quarterback.
And he finished his second season by winning Super Bowl XL.
"I was invincible, I was Superman," Ben Roethlisberger told "E:60" in June 2009, describing his lofty state after two seasons.
"I was probably a little too confident, a little too cocky at times," Roethlisberger said. "That's why I say I think God knew that and knocked me down."
After the 2005 season, there were rumblings that Roethlisberger, who had a shaky, two-interception performance in the Super Bowl, was the player the defense-oriented Pittsburgh Steelers overcame to win the championship, not the one who led the way. He wasn't selected to the Pro Bowl and wasn't elected a team captain.
"I wasn't a good leader early on," Roethlisberger said in that 2009 interview.
"With everything that I had been thrown into and trying to be a leader, and be a quarterback, and be the best that I could be," he said, "I kind of got overwhelmed and I wasn't probably the best teammate I should have been the first couple years."
Four months after that first Super Bowl triumph, Roethlisberger suffered serious injuries when he crashed his motorcycle while riding without a helmet or a permit. He recovered in time for the '06 season, but according to teammates, "Big Ben" was being bashed behind his back by players dissatisfied with his work ethic and what they perceived as aloofness and a sense of entitlement.
Former NFL running back Najeh Davenport, who joined the Steelers that season after spending four seasons in Green Bay, says he soon heard the jabs at Roethlisberger, then 24, despite the quarterback's remarkable two-year résumé of success. "Team leaders there didn't respect the fact that he didn't respect what it took to be like a champion, like a true champion," Davenport says.
About 60 percent of the team felt that way, according to Davenport and former NFL safety Mike Logan, who was then in his fifth season with the club and is now a talk show host for ESPN Radio 1250 Pittsburgh. Logan says Roethlisberger was seen by some teammates as unapproachable for their social and charity events and to sign autographs for fundraisers.
Both players, who were interviewed recently by "Outside the Lines," say they liked Roethlisberger and had good relationships with him, but there was no doubting the rift on the team.
"It was the elephant in the room," Logan says. "It was being talked about in different sections of the locker room."
After opening the 2006 season with a win, the Steelers dropped three straight games and then, the players say, there was a memorable meeting of the entire team when linebacker and co-captain Joey Porter shattered any secrecy in the locker room about the sentiment against Roethlisberger.
"It was just shocking to hear," Logan recalls. "Everyone wanted to say it, but no one [had] said it."
The "it" was the players' grievances against the third-year quarterback.
"Joey, we called him Peezy," Davenport says, "stood up and said, 'I got something to say.'"
Davenport says tensions had been building and building, and everyone in the room was quiet.
Porter then called Roethlisberger out as "the last person in the building and the first person to leave, not being dedicated to the team," Davenport says.
Next, Porter took Roethlisberger to task for separating himself from the team, according to Davenport.
"Last year you used to hang out with us," Davenport recalls Porter saying. "This year, it's like 'the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben.'"
Logan credits the Porter speech for affecting the team and its signal-caller.
"I think that cleared a lot of the air, let the gas out, everyone was like, 'Ahhhhhh, we can breathe now, with it not being so tense now,'" Logan says. "I think it might've opened Ben's eyes a little, just to say, 'Hey, if I am a little more friendly to these guys, if I am a little more open, maybe I'll gain their respect.'"
Says Davenport: "[Porter] was basically telling Ben, 'You're our leader, you've got to be better. We win or lose on you,' and that was his whole thing, in so many words."
Roethlisberger silently absorbed the dressing down, according to Davenport.
Though the others present also kept quiet, Logan says, "It was kind of an eye-opener for everyone to say, 'Wow!'"
The speech "was so powerful," Davenport says, that the Steelers players and staff didn't say anything as they left the gathering. He said even then-head coach Bill Cowher didn't say anything.
"He walked out and everybody got up and just walked out behind him," Davenport says.
"I was walking out," Davenport adds, "and Ben was like right behind me with his hoodie on. I looked around and I seen him, could see it in his face, kind of like a scolding, someone gets in trouble and they really don't want to show emotion, but they're kind of feeling it inside."
Davenport and Logan say Roethlisberger seemed humbled after the Porter confrontation and that he became a more vocal leader and more accessible to his teammates.
That season, Pittsburgh finished with an 8-8 record. In 2007, the Steelers won 10 games and made the playoffs. A season later, led by Roethlisberger, they won 12 games and the NFL title, with one of the most thrilling finishes in Super Bowl history.
Roethlisberger, whose spokesman said he was unavailable to be interviewed for this story, was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2007 and elected a team captain for the first time in 2008. Porter, now with the Arizona Cardinals after three seasons with Miami, was released by the Steelers after the '06 season. He declined an interview request.
After two sexual assault allegations in the past 10 months, Roethlisberger's reputation is now in ruins. He hasn't been charged with a crime, but received a six-game suspension from the NFL for violating its personal conduct policy and the Steelers reportedly entertained trade offers for him. As the 2010 season approaches, Roethlisberger faces a new and profound credibility challenge in the locker room.
Fellow Steelers have expressed encouragement so far in limited interviews.
"He has to gain back the respect from his teammates because I think a lot of people lost respect for him, whether they'll say it on camera or not," says Logan, who keeps in touch with a number of current players. "They've seen Ben bounce back, they've seen him overcome and still have success, so they'll support him."
But there are caveats, Logan says, recalling Roethlisberger's upbraiding four years ago.
The players' attitude toward him now, he says, is, "We don't want to have to keep calling you out, having situations arise and then we revisit where we started from. No, you've done it long enough, you're 28 years old, we expect you to get the lessons without being reminded, there's no more time for that."
William Weinbaum is a producer in ESPN's Enterprise Unit, and also produced the TV story on Roethlisberger. Weinbaum's work appears on "Outside the Lines." ESPN correspondent Kelly Naqi, who has been reporting on Roethlisberger for "Outside the Lines" and "SportsCenter," contributed to this story. ESPN correspondent Michael Smith conducted the "E:60" interview with Roethlisberger in June 2009.
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