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Let It Bleed, Big Ben

Ben Roethlisberger limped slightly as he walked through the depths of Cowboys Stadium toward the postgame press conference. He wore a gray pinstriped suit; in the breast pocket was a blue silk handkerchief that matched his open-collared shirt, and the beard that had hidden much of his face an hour earlier was now gone. The Steelers' quarterback looked like a new man, which he professes to be. A boy of about 12, wearing the number 21 jersey of Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, waited until Roethlisberger had passed and then began to boo softly. His father quickly put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "No," he said. "Don't."

Sympathy for the devil? Not quite. We know too many ugly things about Roethlisberger's past behavior to feel bad for him after Pittsburgh's 31--25 loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday. Two accusations of sexual assault—one in which charges were never filed and one with a civil suit still pending—have made him a pariah to most of the public. Conventional sports wisdom says that you have to win to be forgiven (see Michael Vick), but in defeat Roethlisberger may have moved a few steps toward redemption.

Another Super Bowl championship, the third of his seven-year career, would have been a welcome addition to the Steelers' trophy case, but it might have been a huge setback in Roethlisberger's climb back into the public's good graces. Hardly anyone, with the possible exception of Steelers fans, was ready to see Big Ben so happy so soon. It would have seemed too easy, even unfair, if the season that he had begun by serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy had ended with him holding the Lombardi Trophy. Can you imagine if he had led the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter and been named Super Bowl MVP?

"Ben Roethlisberger, two women have accused you of being a sexual predator. What's next?"

"I'm going to Disney World!"

No, the path to forgiveness for Roethlisberger requires more than leading a crisp two-minute drill. "Seems like some people want Ben to walk across a bed of nails before they'll cut him any slack," says Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward. Now, there's a thought. But in the absence of that kind of pain, seeing Big Ben in the professional agony that comes with losing the Super Bowl will have to do. Apologies for boorish behavior and promises to be a better man can be coached and choreographed. The kind of hurt Roethlisberger expressed after the loss in Dallas cannot.

"I feel like I let people down," he said after the game, in which he threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns but also tossed two critical interceptions. "I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down, the fans, the coaches, my teammates."

Good. Let it bleed. He went on to rattle off the names of teammates who had played through injuries, lineman Chris Kemoeatu, wide receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders among them. "It's even more disappointing for me because I let a lot of people down who showed up today to fight," he said. Even better.

Roethlisberger didn't come close to baring his soul on Sunday, but no one could question his sincerity. He had been relentlessly affable with the media in the days leading up to the game, answering questions with a smile that seemed to cross his face every few seconds, whether it was called for or not. He touched on all the talking points of the fallen celebrity, including a focus on the future and a new reliance on religion. "People ask you, 'What do you want on your tombstone?' " he said. "That he's a good person, a God-fearing person that was loyal to his family and put family first—family and God first."

It was left to everyone else to determine how much of Roethlisberger's sentiment came from the heart and how much from a public relations handbook. That's always the conundrum when considering a wayward athlete: If you root for him, isn't there a small part of you that wonders if he hasn't changed? If you root against him, isn't there a small part that wonders whether he has?

That's why we want athletes to pay a penance we can be sure of. It's why so few wanted to see Roethlisberger get everything he wanted out of this season. Even Steelers fans in Cowboys Stadium on Sunday seemed ambivalent about their quarterback. During the pregame warmups, whenever one of their heroes appeared on the gargantuan screen that's suspended above the field, the Pittsburgh fans responded with a huge ovation. But when Roethlisberger appeared, there was little cheering or booing, as if they were pretending not to notice him.

He received similar treatment after the game. When Roethlisberger finished detailing his disappointment for the media, he climbed down off the podium gingerly because of his sore left knee and headed back down the hallway. No one offered him a ride on one of the nearby golf carts, despite his limp. A member of the Steelers' staff was with him to run interference, but no one approached him except tight end Heath Miller. They walked together for a few steps, but then Roethlisberger went ahead and boarded one of the team buses, where he sat alone, near the back, with his head down.

He was hurting in more ways than one, and if no one wished him any less pain, at least no one wished him any more. That's a start.

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The path to forgiveness requires more than leading a crisp two-minute drill; it calls for the professional agony that comes with losing a Super Bowl.