Milledgeville, Ga., has left Ben Roethlisberger controversy behind
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 12:20 AM
IN MILLEDGEVILLE, GA. When the sign out front of Jones Barber & Styling says "Open," you can bet they're talking sports inside. So when an NFL Pro Bowl quarterback poked his head into town last spring, tore through the downtown bars and left an endless stream of headlines and controversy in his wake, the locals planted themselves on the cracked leather couches inside the barbershop and spent weeks talking. About the possibility of charges. About the merits of a criminal case against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. About the train of giant satellite trucks parked outside that made downtown Milledgeville look like an RV park.
But since then, the only barbershop buzz has come from Hayward Jones's clippers.
"You will not hear anyone talking about no Ben Roethlisberger," says Jones, the 53-year-old shop owner. "The whole thing, it went away. It really has."
Roethlisberger and the Steelers are one win from returning to the Super Bowl. The quarterback has undergone intense image rehab since his visit to Milledgeville last spring.
Though he never faced criminal charges, what happened - or didn't happen - here never may be scrubbed completely from his dossier.
Suspended by the NFL to start the season, Roethlisberger has made a considerable effort to move past the accusation he raped a young woman in a club here. He's been so congenial and cooperative the Pittsburgh media gave him their annual "Chief Award," citing his forthcoming attitude and willingness to help reporters do their jobs.
"I said I need to be more cooperative with people, be a better person," Roethlisberger told reporters last month.
As eager as Roethlisberger was to get past the story, Milledgeville might have beaten him to it. When the district attorney announced that Roethlisberger would not face charges, the TV trucks packed up and left town, taking with them their sensational story of a spoiled, reckless pro athlete.
"In many ways, I think the students and the community [have] moved on, but no one has forgotten," says Jennifer Graham, coordinator of the Women's Resource Center at Georgia College and State University. "I think that's really the mind-set of where folks are at. Everybody's going on with their lives. School has to go on, life has to go on. But it's always kind of in the back of your mind."
Back in the barbershop, Jones says he'll watch the Steelers battle the New York Jets Sunday for the AFC championship. He has no problem separating Roethlisberger's alleged actions in Milledgeville from his football performance at Heinz Field.
"We ain't really worried about no Pittsburgh Steelers around here," Jones said. "It's like it never happened. We've been talking so much about the Falcons around here. Everything else takes a back seat. Pittsburgh who? Ben who?"
The route to a suspension
Roethlisberger came to Milledgeville on March 4 to celebrate his 28th birthday. According to police records, he had already been to three bars, so he probably didn't notice when he walked past Jones's barbershop downtown. He had a parade of locals behind him - one newspaper account described him as a Pied Piper - as he turned a corner and headed to Capital City, a spacious nightclub that offered Roethlisberger and his friends a VIP corner.