Roethlisberger Embraces His Second Chance
Sunday, July 23, 2006
In the past, he might not have been given to introspection. He never had the time. Before the age of 24, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger already had 28 victories as an NFL quarterback and a Super Bowl championship, bestowing upon him an invincibility that kept him from thinking too much about his place in the world.
Then on the morning of June 12, his motorcycle -- still glistening from a new paint job -- careened into a car in a Pittsburgh intersection, leaving him lying on the pavement, his life dripping away. And his perspective forever changed.
"It's helped me a lot," he said Friday at the Capital Hilton, where he was to be honored last night as the NFL Quarterback of the Year by the National Quarterback Club. "It's helped me appreciate things more. It's helped me smile more or not get upset or stay upset as long. It helped me appreciate my family and friends more."
The quarterback laughed.
"When the season starts and I'm not playing well, I'll have a smile of my face and people will wonder, 'How can he be smiling?' " he continued. "But no matter how bad I might be playing, I'm thankful to be here, to be alive.
"Obviously God has a plan for me; I don't know what it is yet, that's the big question."
A bigger question might be the plans Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher has for him. The Steelers open training camp Friday and their coach has been mostly silent on the subject of his quarterback in the weeks after the accident. Last night, in town to present the award to Roethlisberger, he called the player "a very lucky, fortunate young man."
"We're all glad there are no serious ramifications from the accident," he added.
In his first interviews after the accident, Roethlisberger constantly referred to Cowher, saying the coach calls him a "free spirit" and does not want him to squelch that side of his personality. Therefore, he added, he did not see the need to fully alter his aggressive off-field personality.
Asked about this, Cowher frowned.
"I think it's all a matter of interpretation," Cowher said. "He takes that approach on the football field, but you have to know when and where the right times are to do that."
Cowher said the two have spoken a little since the accident and said they are "fine" even though Roethlisberger was injured doing something Cowher had supposedly warned him against -- riding a motorcycle without a helmet.
Roethlisberger seems to have recovered well from his injuries. His face is unblemished even though five titanium plates hold his cheekbones together just under his skin. He said his vision is fine, his head is clear, and he doesn't have headaches, though in recent interviews he has mentioned occasionally spitting up blood. In time, he said he was told, his face should be stronger than it was before.
But there are also some reminders, namely a scar on back of his head and numbness near his mouth where surgeons had to make their cuts. He said the operation to install the plates was a complicated one in which the doctors had to peel back part of his face to get to the fractured bones, then rolled the skin back down when they were done.
"It's kind of gruesome," he said of that detail.
As a result, he is left with an odd sensation in his lips. If he touches them, they feel as if someone "has stuffed cotton swabs" in the corners where the surgeons made their entry.
"I can't feel if I have food on my face," he said.
Still, this appears the most significant of Roethlisberger's physical ailments. A couple of weeks ago he began working out and he runs, throws footballs and lifts weights almost every day. He said he feels fine, that his body has responded. In earlier interviews he referred to a fatigue he sometimes had as he recovered from a significant loss of blood in the accident. He has since said the tiredness is gone.
The two things he has not done, however, are take a hit or put on a football helmet. The contact will come soon enough if he follows through on his avowed plan to take part in the Steelers' first practice this week. To protect himself, he has talked to the team's trainers about using one of the concussion-reducing helmets several players have been wearing over the last three years. The concussion helmets are cut lower than the regular helmets, adding extra protection to the jaw. They have not made a decision about this yet.
Though he said the accident has changed him and he smiled several times in the interview, Roethlisberger still has some of the same brusqueness that defined him his first two years in the NFL. He came armed with rules this weekend. He would not discuss the accident itself, having already told the story several times of waking up in the ambulance and later being informed that he came within a minute of death because of a rapid buildup of blood in his throat and stomach from internal injuries. His parents and sister are with him on this trip, but he declared them off-limits. And when a photographer approached from his left side, he stiffened uncomfortably.
Only pictures on the right side or straight on, he said, before relaxing and explaining that he still has a cut on the left side of his head that he usually hides with a baseball cap.
The more he talked, the more he seemed marked by the defiance many athletes have in the spotlight. Much had been made even before the accident about Roethlisberger riding motorcycles and in particular riding without a helmet, which he was doing when he ran into the car that morning in Pittsburgh. In his first interviews, he explained that he forgot the helmet that morning, having left it in the basement to be taken to a painter who was going to match the colors on the motorcycle.
This, predictably, led to a new round of criticisms and you don't have to be around him long to see the words have had a sting.
"It's what a lot of players use to drive themselves, it drives me," Roethlisberger said of the heat he has taken. "It seems every year there is some reason they are trying to doubt me. Small school, I was playing as a rookie and now this. I'm looking forward to proving to people that I'm up to the task."
In a few days, he will have his chance. With one turn of a car in front of him on a Pittsburgh street, he instantly became the biggest story in the NFL. He seems to understand this even if he isn't completely comfortable with the attention. The biggest test of his appreciativeness might well come several days into training camp when the questions are still there and every blow to the head will be dissected.
For now he said he can handle it.
"Nothing has really scared me or made me take time to think 'I almost died,' " he said. "I'm not a person for what ifs. What if this happened? What if that didn't happen? We talk about it with my family and friends. But it's more 'how lucky am I?' or 'how close was that?' It doesn't scare me at all."