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Milledgeville, Ga., has left Ben Roethlisberger controversy behind

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Located about 90 miles southeast of Atlanta, Milledgeville is a small college town. The downtown area encompasses just a couple of blocks and blends seamlessly into the campus of Georgia College and State University, a former women's school where about 6,000 students are enrolled. In the surrounding neighborhoods, large antebellum homes mix with student housing, and city life revolves around the college.

Roethlisberger met up that night with a 20-year-old student from the school who was wearing a sexually suggestive name tag and had been partying with her sorority sisters. According to police records, the two eventually disappeared into a bathroom, a five-foot-wide, single-stall room with just enough space for a serious accusation to emerge. The young woman, who by all accounts was intoxicated, would later tell police Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her in that bathroom.

Five weeks later, investigators decided they had no case. There wasn't enough DNA evidence, Roethlisberger offered no confession and the accuser ultimately decided she didn't want to prosecute.

"We are not condoning Mr. Roethlisberger's actions that night," District Attorney Fred Bright said last spring, "but we do not prosecute morals, we prosecute crimes."

Several months later, Bright looks back on the decision with no regrets.

"I stick by every word that I've said about that case," he said. "But we've moved on since then." Bright said there was no way he could have convinced a jury beyond a reasonable doubt Roethlisberger had committed a crime.

For the NFL, Roethlisberger didn't have to break a law. Commissioner Roger Goodell didn't like the circumstances, the details of the police investigation and the fact this marked the second time a young woman had levied accusations against one of the game's most high-profile stars. In July 2009, Roethlisberger was sued by a casino hostess in Lake Tahoe, Nev., who claimed he sexually assaulted her the previous year.

Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for the first six games of the season, a penalty Goodell later reduced to four games.

In Milledgeville, fallout from the investigation was minimal. Bright worked with Police Chief Woodrow Blue to draft a new local ordinance that requires businesses to check the identification of every patron who attempts to purchase alcohol. But locals say they feel the town and the college campus are as safe as they ever were.

"Aside from the media attention, there was not a lot that was remarkable about the case," Bright says. "Things go on. We've got other fish to fry. We got other cases to prosecute. As you can see, it's 8 p.m., and I'm working on a case right now. Getting ready to try a murder in about two, three weeks - vehicular homicide. That's what I'm focused on right now."

Time for moving on

In the weeks that followed the accusation, life was anything but normal around campus. Strangers flooded the accuser and her friends with numerous messages after discovering some of their names in police records and media reports.

"A lot were supportive letting us know we did the right thing and were heroes for standing up for daughters, wives, etc., everywhere," says Nicole Biancofiore, a sorority sister of the accuser's who was part of the group downtown the night they met Roethlisberger. "However, a lot of his fans sent threatening messages basically saying we need to back off if we knew what was good for us."

The school calendar moves quickly. Students scattered from Milledgeville last summer and by the time they returned in the fall, many say the night the quarterback came to town felt like ancient history.

"For the most part, people are past it," Biancofiore said.

But they'll never forget the weeks that followed that night. The media rolled in, put up circus tents and fanned out to interview the town. As students were trying to process what had happened to one of their own, they were forced to sidestep cameras and microphones.

"There's not too much like that that goes on in a small town like this. The college is sort of the epicenter of the town," said Zachry Mullins, president of the school's student government. "I think when something happens to one of our fellow students, that shakes everybody."

But now, it rarely comes up. And when it does, it's reliving a bad memory for someone like Biancofiore, who has since transferred to the University of Georgia.

"It is very annoying constantly being asked by people that I meet about it. It seems that everyone wants to hear the story, and I just always tell them that what they read is the story and I have nothing more to say," she says.

Graham, the coordinator at the school's women's resource center, said the school already had many programs in place to protect students, but the incident did spark discussion and increase awareness for some. But now, two semesters removed, Graham says she rarely - if ever - hears Roethlisberger's name mentioned.

"For that period, it was very much a distraction, I think, for the students," she says. "It made them feel like they were under a microscope a bit. I think the students were really tired of having reporters around and dealing with that every day. They were ready to just be at school."

The downtown area still enjoys the same cycle as last spring: conserving its energy early in the week and opening its arms to students on Thursday and Friday nights with its promise of cheap drink specials and late-night fun. All of the bars Roethlisberger visited are still in business and still still serve as popular weekly destination spots for many in town. Roethlisberger is back playing football, and the accuser is back in classes at Georgia College.

"I think for the most part, the students have in a sense moved on," said Mullins, the student body president. "But no one will ever completely forget about it. How could you?"

Still rooting for Steelers

The Steelers organization prides itself on strong values and players of upstanding character, which is why many of the team's fans struggled with news of the Roethlisberger investigation. Around Georgia, they debated the case and reached their own verdicts.

Chuck Marks, 44, is a die-hard Pittsburgh fan who works as an EMT in Milledgeville. He knows all too well what the downtown area becomes some nights.

"The town goes crazy, the girls go nuts," he says. "I think Ben probably didn't use good judgment, but I don't think he did anything criminal.

"I liked Ben before, and I like him now. If he'd have done something criminal, yeah, put his ass in jail. But just being 27-, 28-years old, worth $40-some million dollars, people gonna act up."

When the rape accusation became public, Denise Connor saw news reports of some Steelers fans burning Roethlisberger jerseys. "I said send it to me, I'll wear it," she said. "I'll wear it every day."

Connor, 47, is a Steelers fan originally from Ohio who sells commercial real estate in Georgia and has a 28-year-old daughter.

"My daughter would never be in a situation such as that," she says. "I think that's probably why I'm a little more hardened toward her than I am him."

Connor meets with other Steelers fans every Sunday to watch their beloved black and gold. None report conflicted feelings toward Roethlisberger, who brought them Super Bowl titles in 2006 and 2009, and could be just two weeks away from a third.

"For the most part, the fans that I know here, we're all in the category of, 'Hey Ben, just keep your nose clean. Don't get in trouble again,' " said Jeff Semk, a Steelers fan from outside Atlanta. "You give a young single guy several million dollars, it goes to his head and some things that probably shouldn't happen did. But he's basically not a bad guy at heart. Just some poor judgment."

But that poor judgment will keep some from rooting for the Steelers or Roethlisberger.

"They might be a good team and everything, but it's just too hard to support them, you know," says Biancofiore, the friend of the accuser.

Roethlisberger said this week his focus is on the Jets, not repairing frayed relationships. "That's about the last thing on my mind right now," he said. "It's just about playing football. That's what I try to do is play football games and win and just be me."

He's looking forward, something the people in Milledgeville began doing the second the media left town last spring.

"What I'm saying is, one has nothing to do with the other," said Bright, the prosecutor. "His success on the football field, what does that have to do with what happened here in Milledgeville? It's over. The case is over."

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