PITTSBURGH — In the end, if Ben Roethlisberger learned anything from the consequences of the chronic character flaws that almost brought him down, it was what he missed.
He may have gained humility and may have changed his ways. He may even become an upstanding citizen in the city in which he acquired the fame that exposed his imperfections.
Only time will tally that score, however.
What he learned on a brilliant fall Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field was how charmed his life had been and how he missed it.
Returning from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, Roethlisberger received a warm and at times rousing reception as he led the Steelers to a 28-10 win over the Cleveland Browns.
“On the field before the game, it got a little emotional,” Roethlisberger admitted afterward. “I don’t think it really hit me until I got to the stadium. I had tears in my eyes. That was truly something special.”
Big Ben made his re-entry into football society a generally understated one, saying the right things and doing mostly the right ones on the field.
He talked beforehand about how he had become naive and selfish. Working to spin his image, he appeared on all the NFL pre-game shows Sunday, sounding contrite and sincere.
“I don’t expect people to snap and change and forgive and forget overnight,” Roethlisberger told ESPN. “But I hope they do.”
There was certainly little negative reaction in one of the most passionate football towns in the NFL. Outside the stadium, a couple dozen women protested. But this is America and if there’s an audience, someone might protest the sun rising in the east.
Once inside, Big Ben was at home. The Steelers broke from their tradition of introducing defensive starters first, allowing Roethlisberger to get an early gauge on the welcoming committee. With pink shoes and a pink armband to honour beat breast cancer month, the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback trotted out of the tunnel to huge cheers, raising his right arm and index finger in appreciation.
What followed was about what you would expect from a QB ramping up to game speed after missing a quarter of the season.
His first drive ended with an interception, oddly providing another good omen: Nary a boo from the 65,168 at Heinz.
There were three touchdown tosses, including one in the final minute meaningless to all but those who had a financial stake in the Steelers covering the 14-point spread.
When the first day of the rest of his football life was done, Roethlisberger finished with 16 completions from 27 attempts for 256 yards — almost double the 136 passing yards the Steelers had averaged the first four weeks. He was rusty at times, badly overthrowing a wide open Mike Wallace for a sure touchdown in the second quarter.
But he was at his best during a third-quarter drive that went 96 yards and ended with a Hines Ward touchdown. The highlight was vintage Ben. Taking the snap at is own four, Roethlisberger dropped back into the end zone and ripped a 50-yard strike to Mike Wallace just as he was getting hit. The next play was a 36-yard completion to Heath Miller and by then most of the rust was gone.
If Roethlisberger has a brain that functions as productively as his throwing arm, he may gradually win over all of the Steelers faithful, even those fed up in the aftermath of the sexual assault allegations last March that led to his suspension.
One thing is clear though: He’ll never again be bigger than the team. Other franchises may allow divas and dysfunctional superstars, but it’s definitely not the Steelers way.
“It’s not our story,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of his franchise quarterback’s comeback. “Our story is the story of the 2010 Steelers and our quest to win football games.
“We won and we’re moving on.”