- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- The barkeeps along Carson Street say they haven't seen Ben Roethlisberger around in a while. They'd know if he were here. Pittsburgh, at its core, is one big little city. And people talk.
Steel mills used to drive the South Side, but sweat and grit have been replaced by Abercrombie & Fitch. It's a trendy area now, loaded with yuppies, college kids and watering holes. This used to be Roethlisberger's stomping grounds -- well, one of them -- and stories flow like Iron City beer from a tap.
There was a time, back in the boozy, pre-scandal days, when Roethlisberger could triple a bar's foot traffic within an hour. He'd show up at Jack's Rose Bar, a couple of patrons would grab their cell phones and text BIG BEN'S HERE, and the party would begin.
"He frequented our place a lot," said Chris Dawso, who owns Jack's. "We used to call him the Pied Piper.
"But he hasn't been around at all this year."
Roethlisberger, his supporters say, has grown up. He had to. The face of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise stood in front of an angry and disappointed city this past spring, at the precipice of losing everything. In April, prosecutors had decided not to charge him with sexually assaulting a woman in Georgia, but he was facing a six-game suspension by the NFL. (It was later reduced to four.) He had two Super Bowl rings, and a locker room many suspected he had lost. Team president Art Rooney II said Roethlisberger had to work hard to earn back trust.
On the field, it's clear the 28-year-old quarterback has done that. He has hobbled around on an injured foot, toughed out a broken nose and led the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game, which will be played Sunday night at Heinz Field against the New York Jets.
Off the field, Roethlisberger has spent the past nine months lying low. He's rumored to be engaged, a claim his camp will not confirm, and no longer travels with bodyguards or entourages. He eschews the bar scene, which has been the root of just about every one of his problems.
Has he changed? On the north side of Pittsburgh, the jury's still out. Mark Baranowski is watching Roethlisberger's progress with skepticism and hope. Baranowski is known as sort of the Norma Rae of bar owners in Pittsburgh, the man who stood up to Roethlisberger a few years back when the quarterback, according to Baranowski, showed up at his Cabana Bar and acted immature and entitled, and refused to pay a $5 cover charge.
It wasn't about five bucks, Baranowski says. It was about being a Pittsburgher.
"The town was really fed up with him," Baranowski said. "They were really down on him, and there were a lot of people who just didn't want him to be our quarterback.
"But it seems like he's trying to turn it around. I haven't heard one bad story. I hope he keeps it up. He's got everything going for him. He's big and strong and tough, and people just idolize him. I mean, he could own this city."
'He's worked at it'
Eventually, they'll forget. If No. 7 leads the Steelers to their seventh Super Bowl title, the anger will subside and Roethlisberger's misdeeds will ultimately be a distant memory.
"The thing about life is that if you're a winner, people will forgive a little bit easier," said Jim Coen, the owner of Yinzers, a popular novelty store in the Strip District. "As long as you're heading in the right direction and not doing anything stupid, the city will forgive."
It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the Strip was bustling with lunchtime shoppers buying black-and-gold gear. Nine months ago, when the Big Ben news hit the fan, Yinzers marked down Roethlisberger jerseys to $10. But now they're back at full price and selling at a steady clip.
Sixty-four thousand fans screamed for him Saturday night, after the Steelers' 31-24 win against Baltimore, and he lingered on the field to take it all in. Trust, in late-game situations, was never an issue with Roethlisberger. He plays on the edge, without fear, and is one of the most clutch quarterbacks in the league. Saturday night was no exception. The Steelers were down by two touchdowns to start the third quarter. Roethlisberger couldn't be rattled.
On third-and-19, late in the game, he uncorked a 58-yard pass to rookie receiver Antonio Brown. It set up the winning touchdown and put the Steelers in their fourth conference championship game in Roethlisberger's seven years with the franchise.
"I'm very pleased," team owner Dan Rooney said as he made the rounds in the locker room late Saturday. "He's worked at it. He's doing what he has to do on the field and off."
Roethlisberger won't say it -- he has declined interview requests for stories that focus on him -- but it's clear that the whispers of his demise in Pittsburgh motivated him. He came to training camp slimmer and in possibly the best shape he's been in his career. He seemed to approach every game as a proving ground.
Roethlisberger was required to go through offseason counseling for what commissioner Roger Goodell called a "pattern of behavior" that damaged the integrity of the game. A year before the allegations of sexual assault in Milledgeville, Ga., a woman in Lake Tahoe filed a lawsuit claiming Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her at a hotel-casino in 2008.
People close to Roethlisberger call the Georgia incident an intense reality check. He knew, then, that he had to make changes. So he surrounded himself with a group of advisers, a team that included Art Rooney, Bill Cowher and former Pittsburgh running back Merril Hoge, now an NFL analyst for ESPN.
"He's human," said Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner. "He reached the point where he said to me, 'I'm OK if I never play another down of football so long as people perceive me to be a good person.'"
Maybe, Coen says, Roethlisberger underestimated Pittsburgh. It's true that the city measures success with playoff victories and Super Bowls. But it's about more than that.
People rarely leave here. Men hold doors open for women and check on their neighbors. People, Coen says, are nice to each other. They love their Steelers, worship them, and are heartsick if their quarterback isn't someone they can like. It should be noted that the most popular Steeler is Troy Polamalu, a game-changing safety who frequents a local children's hospital each week and gives his phone number to sick kids.
"The fans of Pittsburgh, they feel like the team is part of their family," Coen said. "When you walk down the street, someone looks you in the eye and says hello to you. That's the way this city is."
'He kind of had an arrogance to him'
The first time Willie Colon met Roethlisberger, they didn't really hit it off. Colon was a rookie offensive lineman in 2006, drafted to move mountains. Roethlisberger was a 24-year-old with a Super Bowl trophy, a truckload of endorsements and a bit of an attitude.
"He kind of had an arrogance to him," Colon said. "I'm a Bronx New York kid. We don't get star-struck. I wasn't impressed. I wasn't sold on the whole Big Ben thing."
But when Colon spent some time with him, he realized how much they were alike. How they were both from small colleges, both intensely competitive (they competed over who had the longest toenails) and both tied closely to their families. How their personalities were so alike that they had become good friends.
Colon was there that night in Milledgeville. He says the incident changed Roethlisberger's life.
"It's weird and maybe awkward to say this," Colon said, "but everything that happened was a blessing in disguise. He saw the kind of person he was, and he was able to change his ways.
"I think, flat out, he's a better person now."
Roethlisberger is an intensely private person, and he has been known to irk fans by refusing to sign autographs in restaurants and bars. According to several bar owners around Pittsburgh, he has, on occasion, walked into an establishment, flanked by bodyguards, and retreated to a private room without conversing with patrons.
Some of his teammates saw a similar detachment. At times, he came across as aloof or uninterested in them.
"I'd be a liar if I said he was open and forthcoming to everybody in the locker room before this," Colon said. "He wasn't. But nevertheless, he's changed his ways. He talks to everybody now. He's more open; he's more vocal. He gets it. He's becoming a great leader."
'It takes time to earn that trust back'
Just before 2 p.m. Monday, the late lunch crowd filtered out of Primanti Bros., a local dining institution. The restaurant takes cash only; the walls are painted with the faces of Pittsburgh's biggest legends.
Jerome Bettis graces the back wall, with a bus painted beside him. Hines Ward is there, too. Roethlisberger's giant mug is bigger than the rest of them. It's covered with graffiti scribbled in black marker.
"It takes time to earn that trust back," said a middle-aged woman named Karen who was walking nearby with her sister Monday afternoon. "He did some stupid stuff, and hopefully he can go forward from that and focus on what he is, a quarterback."
Tollner says his client has an amazing ability to compartmentalize and block out distractions, but that doesn't mean he's oblivious to what people think about him. Although various PR consultants suggested that he pour his heart out in 20-minute national TV increments this past summer, Roethlisberger decided that wouldn't be sincere.
He wanted to prove himself through his actions. He's just an average guy, Tollner says. He cuts his own grass, scoops snow out of his own driveway and shops for his own groceries. Maybe he didn't realize it at first: the importance of every interaction, his significance in the city. Roethlisberger gets it now, his agent says.
With his bar-hopping days apparently behind him, Roethlisberger retreats to his parents' home in his down time. They moved last year from their house in Ohio to a ranch just outside Pittsburgh, and Ben spends a lot of his time outdoors with his dad, Ken.
Roethlisberger was raised in a fairly strict, religious environment, people close to him say, and has turned back to those roots.
"I think his main focus was getting a better connection with the Lord and getting a better connection with his own family," Colon said.
"One part of his life right now is sitting at home, relaxing with his family. He watches TV and lets his body rest. You see the transition. I love the guy to death. Sometimes, in the past, he didn't let the outside world get to know him because he didn't trust them. He didn't feel comfortable with his world outside. But now you can tell he's open and he's willing."
'He was very gracious'
The call came in late May, at the start of Roethlisberger's season of discontent. And Scott Challis was surprised. In the couple of years since his son's death, The John Challis Courage for Life Foundation has held a charity golf event in memory of John. Celebrities are encouraged to come.
The phone rang one day in Freedom, Pa., and Roethlisberger was on the other end. At the time, he was one of the most vilified athletes in Pittsburgh. But he came to the event, played 18 holes, smiled for pictures and signed autographs.
Roethlisberger met John Challis years ago, when cancer was draining the life from the teenager's frail body. They watched a hockey game together, sat in Mario Lemieux's suite.
John, a high school baseball player who had the maturity of a 40-year-old, was considered an old soul. He connected with the quarterback many in Pittsburgh wished would grow up. They spent time together one summer during the Steelers' training camp, riding around on a golf cart. At one point in their interactions, John and Roethlisberger joked around about the quarterback's motorcycle accident. Then John turned serious.
He reminded Roethlisberger that everything can be taken away from you at any time.
"Maybe Ben remembered that," Scott Challis said. "I don't know.
"Do I think he was doing it for the PR? I don't think so. There were no TV cameras there. He wasn't proving anything to anybody. He was just trying to be respectful of my son. He was very gracious. And that made us feel good."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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