A Golden Arm, a Head of Steel and Feet of Clay

This is a very important blog post for me.  It needs to be written, if for no other reason than I need closure.  Especially when I read Kristi Gustafson’s post this morning, where when she was asked about whether she should write a blog post about Big Ben and she thought it meant the clock in London… that would be as dense as me like being asked if I would like Chanel No. 5 and I would respond, “No, I’m not interested in watching TBS tonight, not until Conan O’Brien debuts there.”

But I digress.  And on this blog post, I don’t want to digress.

I don’t have a personal affinity for any professional baseball team.  Maybe the Albany-Colonie Yankees, but that was a long time ago.  My basketball loyalties went, for better or for worse, to the Albany Patroons.  I rooted for the New Jersey Devils for a few years, but that was mostly because of the number of Albany River Rats that were on the squad.

But when it came to professional football, I grew up a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.  I was a Steelers fan from the day when Franco Harris caught a ricocheted forward pass off his shoetops, winning the game against the Oakland Raiders and pushing the Steelers into the playoffs for the first time in modern history.  That was back in 1972.  I followed the Steelers through their glory years – back when NFL analyst Terry Bradshaw was their quick-witted quarterback, who was capable of always finding an open Lynn Swann or John Stallworth, or handing it off to his powerful running backs Franco Harris or Rocky Bleier.  And the Steelers had the most dominating defense in the league, enveloped by their legendary Steel Curtain – Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and “Mean Joe” Greene.

I followed the Steelers through four Super Bowl championships in the 1970’s, the first professional football team to win four Vince Lombardi trophies.  And yes, I followed the Steelers through their malaise in the 1980’s, with guys like Louis Lipps and Walt Abercrombie and Barry Foster and Bubby Brister.  Ecch.  I said Bubby Brister.  Now I gotta wash my mouth out with soap.

I followed the Steelers as Bill Cowher rebuilt the team with guns like Rod Woodson and Neil O’Donnell, and fierce defensive powerhouses like Kevin Greene and Eric Lloyd, and running backs like Chris Fuamatu-Ma’alafala and Jerome Bettis.  I followed the Steelers as they developed Kordell Stewart into the multi-faceted “Slash” player, someone who could excel at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and even as a punter.

How much of a Steelers fan am I?  I own EIGHT different variations on the legendary Terrible Towel, and I also have Myron Cope’s autograph on a vintage Steelers replica helmet.  Yoi!

They came close to the Super Bowl several times.  And in 2004, they used their first-round draft pick to acquire a tall, burly kid out of Miami University of Ohio, Ben Roethlisberger.  They didn’t get Eli Manning or Philip Rivers, but Roethlisberger paid dividends in his first season with the Steelers, going 15-1 and reaching the AFC Championship Game.  A few short years later, he was the starting quarterback for the Steelers in Super Bowl XL.  He would win a second championship three years later.

Winning is one thing.  Off-the-field behavior is another.  Motorcycling without wearing a protective helmet, and getting caught in a crash in 2006 that almost takes his life.  A toxic relationship with pro golfer Natalie Gulbis.  A charge of rape and sexual battery in a Lake Tahoe hotel room.  And now the incidents in Milledgeville, Georgia.

And it’s not like the Steelers didn’t have issues with player conduct in the past.  Santonio Holmes.  Plaxico Burress (the Steelers drafted him).  Bam Morris and all the drugs he was carrying in his car.  And Shayne Courson’s claims that the Steelers were at the forefront of steroid use in the 1970’s.

And it’s not like football players have had to deal with glory-hogging fans who try to goad a player into either a compromising position or a fight, while their buddies whip out the cell phones and hope for a picture or camera video that can be taken out of context and shipped to TMZ.

You don’t think that’s happened before?  In 2002, Jerome Bettis, the legendary Steelers running back, was the target of two different attempts by a Pittsburgh resident to entrap Bettis and extort money.  One of the extortion attempts involved trying to start a fight with Bettis, then have pictures taken of the event and blackmail Bettis into paying money – only Bettis’ teammates quickly broke up the fight and sent the scammer away.  Not to be outdone, in 2002 the scammer convinced a lady friend of his to claim that Bettis sexually assaulted her, so that Bettis would pay some hush money to make it go away.

By using those examples, I’m not saying that Ben Roethlisberger’s actions or conduct were either misconstrued or a blackmail attempt by money-hungry fans.  Ben Roethlisberger brought everything upon himself – his actions, his choices, his decisions.

What Roethlisberger is guilty of, if nothing else, is horrible judgment.  Nothing good ever happens in a bar in the wee hours.  This concept that one could pick out some college coed the way one would pick apart the Raiders’ defensive scheme is just ponderous.  And this has happened twice – this year in Georgia and a couple of years ago in Lake Tahoe.  This is not acceptable behavior, especially when one is the de facto leader of a sports team.

And I can’t forgive any sort of sexual assault by a sports figure against another person.  If I can’t forgive it when Mike Tyson did it, if I can’t forgive it when Kobe Bryant did it, if I can’t forgive it when Tiger Woods did it… then how in God’s name can I forgive what Ben Roethlisberger did?

Right now, for the first six weeks of the NFL season, the only football Ben Roethlisberger’s going to get close to is a copy of Madden on an XBOX 360.  The Steelers will have to rely on Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch, and as I’m writing this blog post before the NFL Draft, I don’t have any idea if the Steelers are going to trade Roethlisberger away and hopefully sign Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen or Colt McCoy, or even – Lord help me for saying this – Tim Tebow.

But no matter what decision the Pittsburgh Steelers make, I’ve made mine.  I will continue to support the team.  I will still wear the Black and Gold proudly.  My Myron Cope signed helmet will not go on eBay.

And if Ben Roethlisberger stays with the team, I will hope that he will lead the Steelers to another championship.

But as far as I’m concerned, all he is right now is a quarterback. He’s filling a job vacancy.

He’s not a hero.   Not anymore.

And dare I say… not ever.