Ron Vergerio, a Pittsburgh-area bus driver and commercial driver's license inspector, has devoted a significant portion of his epidermis to his beloved Steelers. The artists at American Tattoo, a parlor in the Pittsburgh suburb of Verona, have spent more than 200 hours crafting Steelers-themed tats on Vergerio's back, chest and arms. One of the most striking images is that of Ben Roethlisberger standing tall, looking downfield, poised to throw—a quarterback's quarterback.
Vergerio wears that one on his left biceps. Now even this most extreme of Steelers fans wonders if he should get a red line inked through it.
"From a football point of view I'm sure losing [Roethlisberger] would've hurt," said Vergerio last week, relaxing at American Tattoo in the number 4 jersey of Byron Leftwich, a candidate to start the 2010 season in place of the suspended Roethlisberger. "But it's to the point where he's embarrassing the franchise."
Such a pronouncement does not come easily from a man who, if pricked, might literally bleed black-and-gold. But Vergerio is not alone. Throughout Pittsburgh there is strong sentiment that the Steelers should have parted ways with Roethlisberger, their two-time Super Bowl--winning quarterback, for behavior—ranging from civic boorishness to borderline criminality—that has deeply damaged a connection between the community and the family-run organization that has been built over 77 years.
Roethlisberger, 28, was accused of assaulting a 20-year-old female college student in the restroom of a bar in Milledgeville, Ga., in the early hours of March 5, the second sexual-assault accusation leveled at the quarterback in nine months. Ultimately no criminal charges were filed—Fred Bright, the district attorney in Georgia's Ocmulgee Circuit, ruled there was insufficient DNA evidence even as he admonished Roethlisberger to "grow up"—but Roethlisberger nevertheless was suspended for six games (with a possible reduction to four) by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for violating the league's personal-conduct policy. At least one person close to Roethlisberger, his agent, Ryan Tollner, says that recent events have served as a wakeup call for his client. (Roethlisberger, who has been undergoing league-mandated behavioral evaluation, declined SI's request for an interview.) "What you're going to see is a guy who's been humbled by the process and ready to reemerge as a better person," Tollner told SI. "He admitted to me that maybe he got too caught up in the Big Ben persona. Maybe he kind of ran with that too much. But at heart he's a good person who doesn't want to be remembered as the kind of guy who's being presented to the public right now."
As well as Roethlisberger has played—and there's no disputing he's one of the league's elite quarterbacks—his off-the-field reputation has spiraled downward since a horrific motorcycle accident in June 2006, five months after he became the youngest QB to lead a team to the title. Roethlisberger was riding his black 2005 Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle, helmetless and without a permit, in downtown Pittsburgh when he collided with a Chrysler New Yorker. Roethlisberger hit the windshield, rolled over the roof of the car and struck the ground headfirst. He suffered a broken jaw and nose and underwent seven hours of surgery. "If I ever ride again," he said afterward, "it certainly will be with a helmet."
A few months after the accident, a reporter and a cameraman for KDKA-TV, the CBS affiliate that broadcasts Steelers games, were driving on I-376 in Pittsburgh when they saw two men on motorcycles and recognized one as Roethlisberger, who was not wearing a helmet. They began shooting footage, which showed Roethlisberger giving them the finger as he sped away, but the video never aired. The station's news director at the time, John Verrilli, and its current assistant news director, Anne Linaberger, deny that any such tape existed, but several people who saw the video gave SI similar accounts of the tape; sources believe the story was killed out of fear that it would damage KDKA's relationship with the Steelers. "If we had been the other affiliate [which doesn't broadcast the games]," says one of the people who saw the tape, "it would have been A-1 news." (A neighbor who lives near Roethlisberger in a tony section of Gibsonia, Pa., but did not want to be named has also seen the quarterback on his motorcycle. "I've never seen him with a helmet," the neighbor said.)
It wouldn't be the first time a media outlet has protected a star athlete, and it speaks to what the Steelers—and Roethlisberger—have meant to Pittsburgh. But the feeling is not the same now. In a city where fans once held aloft signs that read big ben a godsend, the outrage is palpable. When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette polled its online readers in mid-April about what the Steelers should do with their quarterback, 39% of the more than 38,000 respondents said he should be suspended without pay, and the paper's website was deluged with heartfelt e-mails urging the team to dump him.
The tentacles of the Roethlisberger story extend beyond the City of Bridges. They reach the Park Avenue office of Goodell, who, in suspending a player not charged with a crime, considered what he told SI last week was "a pattern that was developing with Ben."
They extend to a corporate complex in Beaverton, Ore., where Nike, as it did with Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods, announced that it was standing behind its spokesman.
They travel deep into Milledgeville, the capital of Georgia during the Civil War—it was ransacked during Sherman's march—and ancestral home of the Southern writer Flannery O'Connor. One of her story collections is titled A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which might have served as the theme for Roethlisberger's night on the town.
They reach Lake Tahoe, Nev., where Roethlisberger's weeklong visit in 2008 for the American Century Celebrity Golf Tournament, spawned two civil lawsuits, one of which alleges that he sexually assaulted a hotel worker.
And they hit home—hard—in Findlay, Ohio, a well-groomed city of 40,000, where Roethlisberger's former high school coach, among others, is caught between the memory of a good-humored, well-behaved young athlete and the contemporary image of a loutish jock in the throes of narcissistic entitlement. "Ben's got to decide where he wants to go and who he wants to be," says Cliff Hite. The former Findlay High coach, now an Ohio state representative, thought for a second. "I put my money on him getting it right."
But the reach is deepest in Pittsburgh, where within a few days of the Milledgeville revelations Roethlisberger was dumped by both the Pittsburgh Zoo (which replaced a life-sized display of the quarterback with one of Penguins owner Mario Lemieux) and by PLB Sports, which halted production of Big Ben's Beef Jerky.
Over the course of several days in Pittsburgh, SI heard countless variations on the same theme: Roethlisberger throwing his weight around, asking those who got in his way, "Do you know who I am?" Even peripheral interview subjects would, with no solicitation, disparage the man once considered the flesh-and-blood symbol of a town built on raging rivers and hot metal.
Roethlisberger owns an off-season house in a gated community in Eatonton, Ga. Two days after his 28th birthday he traveled the 20 miles down U.S. 441 to Milledgeville—home to Georgia College & State University—with an entourage that included Steelers tackle Willie Colon and two off-duty police officers who work as his bodyguards: Ed Joyner, a Pennsylvania state trooper, and Anthony J. Barravecchio, an officer in Coraopolis, Pa. Both are frequent Roethlisberger companions. As the group barhopped through establishments with names such as The Brick and The Velvet Elvis, text messages began flying around Milledgeville: "Big Ben's in town!" One female GCSU student who was out that night told SI, "It's amazing what girls will do for a $107 million contract." (She's close: Roethlisberger's eight-year deal is worth $102 million.) A woman who didn't want to give her name said, "A lot of girls were throwing themselves at [Roethlisberger]."
Eventually the group landed at a club called Capital City, its fourth stop in town. There, in a curtained-off VIP area in the back, Roethlisberger bought shots for several women, some of whom reportedly admitted to Roethlisberger and Colon that they were not of legal drinking age. The 20-year-old GCSU student and others in her group of sorority sisters were wearing name tags of a sexual nature—the accuser's read dtf, short for Down to F---. Witnesses said the woman was visibly intoxicated at Capital City, and one told police that the accuser had been "obsessed" with Roethlisberger's arrival in town.
At around 1 a.m. Roethlisberger and the woman walked to a bathroom. The report filed by the Milledgeville police alleges that one of the bodyguards guided the woman toward the restroom by the shoulder; the bodyguards maintained to police that they had no knowledge of what happened between Roethlisberger and the woman. A source close to Roethlisberger said that he never intended to have intercourse and described his intentions as "Clinton sex," or fellatio. But the female student told police that they did have intercourse, and that the 6'5", 241-pound Roethlisberger used force.
Sgt. Jerry Blash, the Milledgeville police officer who wrote the criminal report, has resigned from the department in the midst of an investigation into comments he made to Barravecchio that night. According to Barravecchio, Blash described Roethlisberger's accuser as "this drunken bitch" and said, "This pisses me off, that women can do this." Sources say Blash—who had posed for photos with Roethlisberger and several other Milledgeville cops earlier in the evening—was dismissive about the sexual-assault claim when the accuser and her friends approached him that night. (As of last week a purple parking sign stood in the carport of Blash's house in Milledgeville reading, RESERVED PIMP PARKING. HO'S IN BACK.) Milledgeville police failed to secure the crime scene, and Roethlisberger was never interviewed in any formal fashion that night or in the ensuing days.
Earlier at Capital City, witnesses say, Roethlisberger had held aloft a tray of tequila drinks and shouted, "All my bitches, take some shots!" He preened, dispensed rounds, hit on various women and ignored others who hit on him, reveling in the Big Ben persona just nine months after he'd been forced to address another troubling incident.
On July 11, 2008, at Harrah's Lake Tahoe, Roethlisberger allegedly called hotel employee Andrea McNulty to his room to fix a television that turned out to be in proper working order. In a civil suit filed a year later, McNulty claims Roethlisberger groped her and penetrated her against her will. Roethlisberger denies McNulty's account and has declined to comment on specifics.
McNulty says she reported the incident to her superiors but that they did nothing about it. She contends that her boss, Dave Monroe, the vice president of food and hotel operations, told her that Roethlisberger was a close friend of Harrah's Northern Nevada president John Koster, and that Koster "will personally fire you for starting rumors about Roethlisberger's personal life." McNulty said she was told by Monroe, "That guy [Roethlisberger] can have anyone he wants."
The Lake Tahoe incident, like the one in Milledgeville, is fraught with he said/she said. One of McNulty's coworkers gave a sworn affidavit that McNulty bragged about having consensual sex with Roethlisberger and said that she wanted to have his child. McNulty's civil complaint, in contrast, alleges that she asked Roethlisberger to stop but that he didn't, and that after finishing, he told her, "If anyone asks you, you fixed my television. Now go!"
Four days before the McNulty incident, Roethlisberger visited Cabo Wabo Cantina on the grounds of the Harrah's resort with Joyner, Barravecchio and a female friend. There, according to a lawsuit filed by former Cabo Wabo waiter Alvaro Brito, the group "mocked, made fun of and mimicked" Brito while he asked the woman for I.D. to prove she was 21. (Roethlisberger produced the I.D., which showed her to be 27.) As the quarterback left, the lawsuit alleges, he asked Brito if he knew who Koster was and told Brito that Koster was a friend of his. A few days later Brito, who had worked for Harrah's for 12 years and earned $47,000 a year, was fired. He says he was told that the order came from Koster and that it resulted from the encounter with Roethlisberger's group. Brito, who now manages a restaurant in Carson City, Nev., was advised by his lawyer not to speak to SI, nor did Koster or Monroe respond to interview requests. In its response to the McNulty lawsuit, Harrah's said it "engaged in no wrongdoing, and has no liability whatsoever in these circumstances."
Consider: the alleged unabashed behavior, bullying group mentality and we're-with-Ben enablers. Those are the unifying threads from Lake Tahoe to Milledgeville.
In the tepid eight-sentence apology Roethlisberger made on April 26 in accepting the suspension, he pointed out that he has been charged with no crime. That is true. But tightroping the line and tumbling on the correct side of the law does not a good Steeler make. There are myriad reports of Roethlisberger's spreading ill will around Pittsburgh, demonstrating a level of crudeness and immaturity that mandates he "make the necessary improvements," a phrase he used in his apology.
A man who agreed to be identified only by his first name, Craig, says that a few weeks before the Milledgeville incident, he overheard Roethlisberger making lewd comments to a pregnant waitress at a Pittsburgh T.G.I. Friday's. The waitress, when asked last week, recalled Roethlisberger's saying such things as, "Did your boyfriend forget to pull out?"
Mark Baranowski, owner of the popular Cabana Bar in Pittsburgh, says that when the quarterback first came in with a group of hangers-on a few years ago, he refused to pay the $5 cover and used a variation on the Do you know who I am? line to intimidate an employee at the door. At a party Roethlisberger held at the Cabana Bar on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of his motorcycle accident, Baranowski got upset that Roethlisberger's posse rounded up women to come to his VIP area while intimidating customers into deleting cellphone photos of the QB. (His bodyguards allegedly did the same things in Milledgeville.) Roethlisberger agreed to sign a few items, for which he was going to receive free drinks, but Baranowski says he did it sloppily and halfheartedly. The fed-up owner decided Roethlisberger had to pay the cover from then on, which prompted a call from a Steelers security man who wanted to know why the quarterback was banned. Baranowski, through an intermediary, told the staffer Roethlisberger wasn't banned but added, "Tell him he's an arrogant a------, and every Steeler can get in without a cover except him." Roethlisberger has not been back to the Cabana Bar.
After most home games Roethlisberger and several other players head to the Fox and Hound English Pub & Grille. The quarterback would get no customer-of-the-month awards there, either. On at least two occasions Roethlisberger walked out without his tab having been paid (someone else in his party usually does so); one employee remembers a waitress chasing him into the parking lot yelling, "Hey! You owe me money!" as Roethlisberger climbed into his SUV. (He did pay when she caught up to him.)
Roethlisberger's reputation in Pittsburgh is not only a matter of an us-against-Ben war waged by service people. SI spoke at length with a friend of Roethlisberger's, who gets along with the quarterback but who is pained by his behavior. When they're out together, the man, who didn't want his name used, sometimes feels obligated to apologize to waiters and bartenders whom Roethlisberger has treated like garbage. He says he shakes his head when he sees Roethlisberger "disrespect" women in bars. (He has never seen any sign of sexual impropriety.) He is embarrassed by Roethlisberger's pettiness and immaturity during pickup basketball games—he says Big Ben will whine about team selection, talk mean-spirited trash and flex his biceps when he makes a good play. He despairs when he sees Roethlisberger blow off attempts by older Steelers, such as Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, to give him advice. He doubts that Roethlisberger's closest buddies tell him anything except what he wants to hear.
"I'm hoping some of this will make Ben look at himself and say, 'I've got to change,'" Roethlisberger's friend says. "I hope he'll think, I don't want to be known as not a nice person."
In Findlay, Roethlisberger is remembered as a nice person, and since hitting it big he has been generous to the local police and fire departments and youth football programs. "You take a walk downtown," says Brad Bosse, a 52-year-old middle school track coach who lived two doors down from the Roethlisberger family for 12 years, "and start talking about Ben, 99 percent of the time you're gonna get a good reaction."
But there are reminders that all is not as it once was. Cathy Linhart, who owns the House of Awards and Shoes on Main Street and sold more than 100 Roethlisberger bobbleheads after he was drafted by the Steelers, watched his paraphernalia go untouched at a garage sale last month. While acknowledging that not all the rumors about him have been proved, Linhart (who used to sell sports gear to a young Roethlisberger) is nevertheless disappointed. "Where's his ethics? His morals? What happened to him?" she says. "Grow up, you know what I mean?"
In Milledgeville, meanwhile, the citizens simply wish Big Ben and his posse had never come to town. Even more, they wish the media had never shown up in Roethlisberger's wake. Many have fought to preserve Milledgeville's legacy as something other than the Place Where Roethlisberger Was Accused. They include Ben Loper, co-owner of the Pig in a Pit restaurant, who, angered by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story that he believes painted the townspeople as hicks, made T-shirts reading KEEP IT CLASSY MILLEDGEVILLE. Others offer their opinions of Roethlisberger, such as 57-year-old Danny Snow, who last Saturday sat at the pool hall down the street from a marathon Bible reading at the Old Baldwin County Courthouse. "They should also make him go to church every Sunday," Snow said. "How else is he going to change? Otherwise, the only thing he'll be changing are nightclubs."
The most enduring hangover, however, is in Pittsburgh, a city with a soft spot for its sports teams but a hard crust, too, a city with a finite tolerance for misbehavior.
At a minicamp last Friday, Roethlisberger's teammates mostly expressed support for their quarterback. But even Colon, who was there that night in Georgia, let it be known that Roethlisberger should learn from the experience. "The fans have a right to be upset," he said. "They buy tickets to support us. Remember that Ben is a human being, and human beings make mistakes. Hopefully he learns from his and moves on."
Veteran receiver Hines Ward, who during his six seasons as one of Roethlisberger's favorite targets has never had a close relationship with the quarterback, called the suspension "justified" and added, "When you're in the quarterback position, everybody looks to you and there are certain situations you can't put yourself in. By Ben going through this, he'll come back a different person."
It's difficult to gauge how much goodwill Roethlisberger has stockpiled with his teammates. He was dressed down by linebacker Joey Porter during the 2006 season for being aloof and not working hard enough. But Roethlisberger performed with guts and honor in the Super Bowl XLIII victory, and that goes a long way in a league with few elite signal-callers.
Would the Steelers really have considered getting rid of Roethlisberger? Multiple media reports asserted that the team made calls before last month's draft (specifically to the Raiders and the Rams) to inquire about a trade. It's just as likely, however, that Steelers president Art Rooney II, the man guiding the franchise, never intended to deal Roethlisberger. But he must have spent a few sleepless nights weighing his decision, for keeping Roethlisberger after two major incidents and several minor ones goes against the family legacy, the implicit pledge to fill the roster with solid citizens.
Franchise patriarch Art Rooney, known as Chief to most of the old Steelers, used to walk around the locker room whispering sage advice. "Chief constantly drove home the point that we were representing something larger than ourselves, that we had to conduct ourselves in the proper way," says Andy Russell, a Steelers linebacker for 12 seasons through the mid-1970s. "Even back when we were playing, there were ways of getting in trouble in bars. Guys wanted to fight you. Women wanted to go home with you. You just had to walk away. That was what you were taught by the Rooneys."
The family—including Art II's father, Dan, the current U.S. ambassador to Ireland; and Art II's son, team vice president Art Jr.—understand that keeping Roethlisberger is a large gamble and that their quarterback is one more slipup away from turning the Steelers into a Keystone State version of the Raiders. But after jettisoning another problem player, wide receiver Santonio Holmes (who was dealt to the Jets in April for a fifth-round pick after he was found to have violated the league's substance-abuse policy) they are laying their chips on number 7.
"When I met with Ben, he said he's going to be changing his life," Art II told SI's Peter King in mid-April. "Words are the easy part. We have to make sure Ben puts himself on a path to do better. It's a tall order, but it's something he has to do."
In Pittsburgh, perhaps more than anywhere else in our languid nation," wrote hometowner Michael Chabon in his coming-of-age novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, "a barmaid does not care."
Barmaids, and most everyone else, care less about Roethlisberger now that the city has a full-blown hero in Sidney Crosby, the peerless NHL center whose Penguins are defending their Stanley Cup in a series against the Canadiens. Sid the Kid has proved to be the anti-Roethlisberger, not so much in playing style—they are both hard-edged warriors—but in the ability to be a major star with a minor ego.
Cynics will no doubt assume that Roethlisberger can reclaim the city, possibly with a few touchdown passes, perhaps with a strong playoff game, probably with an AFC championship and certainly with a third Lombardi Trophy. Sports fans are too fickle, too in the moment, for us not to believe that success wouldn't have them climbing back on the Big Ben bus.
But make no mistake, this schism between superstar and town is a serious one. At Peppi's Old Tyme Sandwich Shop, owner Lou Bosser said he's still selling the #7, a.k.a. Peppi's Rookie of the Year, a.k.a. the RoethlisBerger, a sausage and ground beef stomach-churner topped with egg and American cheese, for $7.26. But now customers offer a side order of editorializing. "You get the bad comments," says Bosser, "like you got to eat it in the bathroom."
And store owners are experiencing a Roethlisberger market downturn, with the exception of the dumb and dumber shirts depicting Tiger Woods and Big Ben. At Yinzers in the Strip District, 50-year-old owner Jim Coen has moved his bin of Roethlisberger jerseys to a storeroom in the back. "That's thousands of dollars worth of merchandise right there," Coen says. He points to the little girls' pink number 7 shirts emblazoned with Roethlisberger's name. Says Coen, "Would you buy your daughter this jersey?"
Despite his financial losses, though, Coen is sympathetic. "We look at Ben like a little brother who's a drug addict," he says. "You love him, you want him, you need him, but he's on thin ice. Our football team is our life."
You don't have to tell that to fans like Vergerio, whose life is painted all over his upper body. But in this ugly tale of a player and a town, the pain cuts much deeper than skin, all the way down to bone.