Big Bad Ben is back

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:51 AM ET

PITTSBURGH — There is hardly a bar in the Steel City where someone in the joint doesn’t have a Ben Roethlisberger story or, at the very least, has heard a few.

As you might expect, many of them aren’t good as the troubled Steelers quarterback spent much of his first few seasons here alternating between Big Ben on the field and Bad Ben off of it.

Over time, the lewd legend has grown.

Similarly, as “Welcome Back Ben” week settles in on a city that holds its football team dear, there are few who don’t have an opinion about Roethlisberger’s return to action this Sunday after an NFL-imposed four-game suspension.

The on-going discussion, hot last spring after an investigation into accusations he sexually assaulted a college student in Georgia, cooled off through the summer, is back on sizzle again.

The Steelers are 3-1 and arguably a serious AFC contender again after compiling that record with virtually no offence and a rebirth of the franchise’s storied and stout defence.

But after a bye week, it was time to say hello again to a purportedly more contrite Roethlisberger, who is back in uniform and at practice after serving his time for violating the league’s personal conduct guidelines.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin became the unwitting moderator of the renewal to the discussion on Tuesday when he was asked at his weekly press conference whether Big Ben’s return will have a positive impact on his team.

“He always does, because he’s a ridiculous competitor,” Tomlin said at the Steelers South Side practice facility. “When he has an opportunity to compete, you feel him in the room or the stadium. That’s one of the interesting attributes about him as a player and a person. When facing adversity and given an opportunity to compete, man he does.”

Fitting, perhaps, that Tomlin used the term “ridiculous,” because it is a word that can be applied to all angles of the debate.

Judging by callers into the local all-sports radio station — not always a fully accurate pulse on a situation, we acknowledge — “ridiculous” will be part of the vernacular when the Cleveland Browns visit Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon.

One guy suggested anyone who dares boo Big Ben can expect a beer.

A woman said Steeler fans should feel free to express whatever opinion they want about Roethlisberger’s personal transgressions.

But when it comes to football, he should be supported just like any player in Black and Gold.

Still another caller said the suspension was a joke.

Four games translated to a hockey season, after all, would be a 20-game sentence and, the fan argued, Roethlisberger was never officially charged.

“Of course it matters,” Tomlin said when asked if the reaction will resonate with the team in general and Roethlisberger specifically. “We are a pro sport and we get so much energy off of our fans. We work hard to entertain and please them.

“I expect Ben to get a warm reception. I really feel that’s the nature of Steeler nation.”

His return likely couldn’t come to a softer spot, given that in a football sense the Browns’ horrid pass defence and the fact that Steelers have established a strong enough run game that they won’t have to live and die with the passing game right away

Though he has already won two Super Bowls, Roethlisberger’s stature here has likely been altered forever. In the context of his team, he is no longer a captain though it has long been held that the only leadership role he ever had was in the huddle.

In the eyes of Steelers fans, a constituency that spreads far beyond Pittsburgh and its suburbs, it may be an elongated work in progress.

Of course, if he is able to lead the Steelers to yet another championship, much of his troubled past will be forgotten even if in this city of bridges, it is clear Roethlisberger has burned his share.


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