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What We Think About When We Think About Big Ben

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AS HIS STEELERS STORM INTO THE POSTSEASON, IT'S EASY TO SEE HOW BEN ROETHLISBERGER HAS EVOLVED AS A PLAYER. BUT HIS GROWTH AS A PERSON? THAT'S HARDLY AS CLEAR. CHILLY RELATIONS WITH HIS HOMETOWN MAY PROVIDE CLUES TO THE QUARTERBACK'S DEEPER FEELINGS—AND GIVE FANS UNDECIDED ABOUT SUPPORTING HIM EVEN MORE TO PONDER

Ben ROETHLISBERGER HAS BEENgood for nearly seven years now—good here being descriptive of public behavior, not morality, the way it's applied to a heedful child or a docile dog. By all appearances the Steelers' quarterback has acted like a cordial, civilized adult off the field, while on it he has proved to be one of the singular talents in NFL history. Whether that combination signals maturity—much less true redemption—is anyone's guess.

Such uncertainty, as the NFL playoffs begin, will lead to the usual Big Ben sidestep by TV commentators. This is Roethlisberger's ninth foray into the postseason, so much will be made of his three Super Bowl appearances, the way his grit so perfectly matches old-school football and the franchise's image. The two rape accusations—one levied in civil court after an alleged attack at a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2008 and settled in '12, the other allegedly committed in '10 and dropped a month later after Georgia prosecutors declined to press charges—will barely be mentioned, if at all.

Beyond the telecasts, though, the chatter gets more contentious. Steelers partisans who don Big Ben's jersey embrace a heavy brand of fandom. With the retirements of Ray Lewis and Kobe Bryant, the 34-year-old Roethlisberger is American sports' most prominent polarizer, his number 7 as provocative as a question mark. And sooner or later, the ask does come.

"He said, 'Why you got that jersey on? You know what Ben did? You're a woman and you're wearing it?'" says Pittsburgh fan Lefifia Moore, 41, about a confrontation she once had with a man outside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. "And I said, 'Were you there? Do you have proof? How do you know she's not lying?'"

In fact, once Steelers safety Troy Polamalu retired, in 2015, Roethlisberger became Moore's favorite player. Why? "His performance," she says. "Stuff happened. I can't say he did, and I'm not going to say he didn't. Personally, I don't believe it; it's her word against his. I like what he does on the field. When we're in a crunch and I need a play, I can count on Ben to make it happen."

She laughs. "And he doesn't go down," she says. "It's a struggle to get him down."

SINCE THE summer of 2010 no women have come forward to accuse Roethlisberger of sexual assault, unwanted advances or so much as an off-color comment. There have been no reports of run-ins with police, not even a speeding ticket, and his name no longer serves as a synonym for noxious entitlement on the Pittsburgh bar scene. He has been married since '11 to Ashley Harlan, a physician's assistant of deep Christian values from nearby New Castle, Pa., after first talking to her two brothers and asking her dad for permission. They have three children, and Big Ben does seem to dote. When his now-four-year-old son, Benjamin, wove through a scrum of reporters in the locker room to tug on Dad's pant leg after this season's home opener, Roethlisberger's facade melted.

"How'd you sneak up on me, huh?" he said, voice softening and rising, eyes wide, lifting the boy up high. "Did you see my interview?"

Indeed, if Roethlisberger has declined—as he did with SI—all requests in recent years to reflect on his walk from self-centered boor and alleged predator to family man, revered team leader and future Hall of Famer, he is hardly a ghost. He has made good on a vow to cooperate more with local media, even receiving an award for his accessibility. He appears for weekly state-of-Ben chats and answers questions, win or lose, after every game.

That he does all this genially, if tersely ("I need to be better"), allows for the impression that Roethlisberger is a stand-up guy. But there's often a palpable sense that he endures far more than he enjoys these back-and-forths, measuring even the most benign queries for hidden traps. "Ben knows what's going on, even if he acts like he doesn't; he fully knows, and better than just about anybody I've seen," says Ryan Hawk, who spent two seasons battling Roethlisberger for the starting job at Miami (Ohio) University. "He's very aware—but likes to portray that he's not—and very smart."

In other words Roethlisberger is, like most quarterbacks, a chess player, a competitive beast, a control freak. His job, of course, depends on keeping opponents off-balance, and he knows the value of a well-aimed purpose pitch. In fact, nearly seven years ago Roethlisberger fired one brushback, in the face of all logic and geography, and he has renewed its chippy message every year since.

The message consists of two words: Cory Rawson. But to understand the fury behind them, you must know that after Georgia district attorney Fred Bright announced on April 12, 2010, that he would not pursue rape charges against Roethlisberger, the then 28-year-old QB seemed to concede every denunciation—short of the accusation itself—leveled at him. Roethlisberger did not fight the NFL's six-game suspension, or the mandated counseling that later reduced it to four. He didn't blame the thousands of Steelers fans who wanted him traded, or owner Art Rooney II, steward of the upright family legacy, who mulled the idea very seriously. "The Rooneys are really principled people, and I think they wanted to be sure of Ben," says Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner. "They were worried about their brand and what they've built."

Roethlisberger apologized publicly for the "disappointment and negative attention" caused by his infamously entitled antics; said he was "committed to improving and showing everyone my true values"; and cut short friends who tried to blame outside forces for his troubles. "Don't make excuses for me," he'd say. Roethlisberger went on ESPN just before his 2010 return, admitting that he had for years thought himself "invincible ... untouchable and better than other people." In the ensuing years he even made peace with critics like Steelers legend Terry Bradshaw, who said on national TV that Roethlisberger "disrespected women" and that the franchise should have "dumped" him.

In short, Roethlisberger seemed fully humbled, reformed even, except for one strangely enduring animus. When he was 10, his family moved from the small town of Bluffton, Ohio, to nearby Findlay, a prosperous city of 36,800 in the state's northwest wing. He became a three-sport star there and set state records in his one electrifying season starting at QB for Findlay High. Through college at Miami and his first six years as a pro, Roethlisberger visited Findlay often, hosted a charity basketball game there, proudly called it home.

But after the Milledgeville, Ga., rape allegation surfaced in the spring of 2010, that all changed. Unflattering comments from Findlay residents about Roethlisberger as a young man appeared in national publications, "When Ben got in trouble," says former Findlay High athletic director Jerry Snodgrass, "Findlay, in general, sold him down the river."

The young QB was outraged. "A lot of stuff that was said is just blatant lies, which is ridiculous from people you played with and think are your friends," Roethlisberger told the Findlay newspaper, The Courier. "You'd think people would be proud of you. Instead, I think there is a lot of jealousy."

In response, when it came time to list his birthplace in the Steelers' 2010 media guide, Roethlisberger had the location changed from Findlay to Corey Rawson.

The problem: "Corey Rawson" doesn't exist. Roethlisberger was actually born in Lima, and before fifth grade he lived near—but not in—the two tiny villages of Mount Cory and Rawson. He attended the Cory-Rawson school through fourth grade, but nobody there calls that a place of residence; it's no wonder that Roethlisberger misspelled it the first time and a few months later slipped up and referred to himself on ESPN as "the kid that grew up in Findlay."

Roethlisberger has otherwise maintained a biliously hard line on the matter. (He's also dropped the erroneous e in Cory.) Despite outcries from Ohioans that his listed hometown is no more real than Bikini Bottom, he persisted; the 2016 media guide still lists Roethlisberger's birthplace as Cory Rawson. It is, in its way, a deftly wielded needle: easily ignored by Pittsburgh fans and NFL pundits, even as its point pokes away at one small, sensitive dot on the Ohio map.

Never mind that such digs keep fresh a past that Roethlisberger is loath to discuss, and fray his image as a chastened soul. Or that the remarks made by Findlayites largely lined up with his retrospective self-description of an arrogant ass. It's almost as if Roethlisberger keeps "Cory Rawson" as his one place to vent all the emotions loosed by the rape charges and the resultant criticism, the ones that don't figure to fade no matter how long he leads his team onto the field, week after week, with thousands cheering, wearing his name.

AT 27, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey is seven years younger than his quarterback. That won't matter. "I say all the time: The moment he walks away, I'm walking right behind him," Pouncey says. "You get so used to playing with that type, man, and I don't know if I'm ready to walk into a huddle with another quarterback. I don't think I'll ever be."

Pouncey won an NCAA championship at Florida snapping to Tim Tebow, who commanded legendary respect from teammates and opponents. But not, for Pouncey, as much as Roethlisberger. "Ben has something most people don't," Pouncey says. "He doesn't have to say much. If he just looks at you, even in the game.... Say, for example, I have a low snap. I'd rather Ben say something than give me that look. But he's not going to call us out in the media. He'll come to us personally: 'Pounce, that snap was low there.... '

"Some people might think different, but I think he's the greatest guy in the world. The best leader. The best quarterback. If Ben told me to go swing on a guy? I'd run right over and do it."

Then again, Pouncey joined the Steelers as a rookie in 2010, the dividing line in Roethlisberger's career, the season in which he had little choice but to grow up and reach out. In 2004 he set a rookie record with 13 straight victories; the next year he became the youngest signal-caller ever to win a Super Bowl. But this precocity had a downside. Even if you concede the challenges facing a 22-year-old leading an already successful team of veterans, Roethlisberger did himself no favors.

"A lot of success came really quickly for him; it was hard for him to manage that and be one of the guys," says former running back Jerome Bettis, who played with Roethlisberger in 2004 and '05. "He had to insulate himself to a degree because of the scrutiny he was under. There were some incidents where he wasn't the best teammate."

Steelers tradition, for instance, has it that a rookie brings breakfast for his position group on Saturdays. Roethlisberger, after he became the starter and star, failed to do so. "And small things like that become a big issue," Bettis says. For several years Roethlisberger was conspicuously passed over when the team selected its captains.

Before retiring, Bettis told Roethlisberger that, as the quarterback, he had to start giving more of himself to the public and to every segment of the team in order to achieve true leadership. The message didn't take. In the summer of 2006, after ignoring coach Bill Cowher's insistence that he wear a helmet, Roethlisberger nearly died in a motorcycle crash in downtown Pittsburgh, breaking his jaw and nose and numerous teeth. During the '06 season, the Pittsburgh locker room thrummed with dissatisfaction over Big Ben's responsiveness and last-in-first-out work ethic. Linebacker Joey Porter even called Roethlisberger out in a team meeting for treating everyone like his supporting cast.

It wasn't until the spring of 2008, after he signed an eight-year, $102 million contract, that the nickel finally dropped. One March night Roethlisberger sat veteran backup Charlie Batch down at a Quaker Steak & Lube, bought drinks and asked, "How can I be a better teammate?" Batch spent the next three hours talking about taking linemen out for meals, presenting thoughtful gifts, stopping by defensive players' lockers at the end of practice—all variations on the same theme: Show 'em you care.

That autumn Roethlisberger was named a team captain for the first time. The Steelers went 12--4 and beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII after the QB deftly managed a 78-yard final drive capped by a six-yard laser to wide receiver Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left. When he and Batch hugged afterward, Roethlisberger said, "So this is what you were talking about, huh?"

As an NFL quarterback and leader, if not as a man, his evolution was all but complete. Like Pouncey, wideout Antonio Brown found himself confronting a different Roethlisberger after being drafted by Pittsburgh in 2010: one who sought out teammates, and now with a lesson to teach. "He always is challenging me about responsibility, doing things the right way," Brown says. "He taught me a lot. He was suspended four games [for the Milledgeville incident], and when he got back he told me, 'No matter what happens with you in this league, when you become a star, always keep your head and stay level-grounded. Keep the right people around you.'"

PHYSICALLY, THERE have been few long-tenured quarterbacks like Roethlisberger. At 6'5" and 240 pounds he possesses neither Tom Brady's litheness nor his hero John Elway's speed, yet he ranges in a way the similarly built Peyton Manning never did. Roethlisberger's lightfooted knack for extending plays, his ability to unload the ball from all angles and his startling accuracy on deep throws reveal the all-district point guard operating within. Deep down, he is a baller.

Every performance, that is, contains both beauty and beast, refined technique and backyard mayhem, sometimes within seconds of each other. In one third-quarter sequence against the Bengals in Week 2, Roethlisberger followed up a near interception by, first, on third-and-one, fending off 325-pound tackle Domata Peko with his left hand and, while being yanked to the ground, shoveling the ball to tight end Xavier Grimble for a six-yard gain; then lofting a 53-yard rainbow so perfectly placed that it hit the streaking Sammie Coates in the face mask; and, finally, threading a nine-yard touchdown pass between three defenders to tight end Jesse James in the end zone.

The score, of course, was appreciated, but defensive teammates particularly loved the Peko tussle. Not that it was a surprise. Before joining Pittsburgh in 2014, linebacker Arthur Moats lined up against Roethlisberger for four years with Buffalo. "The biggest thing," Moats says, "was you'd hit him, and the first guy would never bring him down. You'd hit him, fall off. Ben's like, 'It's just one of y'all? Good luck.' Three-hundred-pound grown men, he's just throwing them off—and then he throws a bomb for 50 yards? That's what separates him."

With just one playoff victory over the last five years, Roethlisberger certainly hasn't won like Brady (who has?), but his numbers—29 TD passes in this, his 13th season, during which he missed a week following left-knee surgery and sat out the final game after the team's playoff spot was secure—rank among the greats. Roethlisberger is 10th in passing yards (46,814), ninth in touchdowns (301), eighth in passer rating (94.1) and seventh in game-winning drives (39). Only Bradshaw's four Super Bowl rings keep him a cut above in the Pittsburgh hierarchy; they can start casting Roethlisberger's bust in Canton now. "He's always had great vision and feel, a great arm, but the manner in which he's getting the ball out, and fast, 90% of the time—he's making really good decisions," says Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "It shows growth."

Says Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who served as Pittsburgh's OC from 2007 to '11, "People are finally realizing what I knew for a long time: that he's been the most underrated quarterback in the NFL going back six, seven years."

This season—with running back Le'Veon Bell suspended for the first three games and receiver Martavis Bryant banned for all 16 for violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy; with a rash of injuries and a defense still finding itself—the Steelers proved wildly uneven. Roethlisberger gave varying responses. First, after a three-game losing streak left Pittsburgh 4--4, he tried calm. "Follow me," Roethlisberger said. "Guys that've been here know: No time, no reason, to panic. Just watch me."

He then passed for 408 yards and three TDs against red-hot Dallas, pulling off a 75-yard scoring drive that had Pittsburgh up 30--29 with less than a minute to play. But the defense couldn't hold; the Steelers sank to 4--5. Maybe it was time to panic. "We are undisciplined and not accountable," Roethlisberger snapped afterward. "Is it players? Is it coaches? I don't know, but we need to get there quick."

Since then Pittsburgh has won seven straight. Much of that has been due to Bell's steady excellence, particularly in a December snowstorm at Buffalo, where Roethlisberger turned in a three-interception stinker for his ugliest performance in eight years. But part of it has been because Roethlisberger knows how to rise to the moment. Take that masterly fourth quarter—14 of 17 for 164 yards and two TDs—in the division-clinching, 31--27 comeback win over the Ravens on Christmas Day as a sign. The last urgent push of his career has begun.

"He has taken on more responsibility now than he ever did," says Rooney, "whether it's talking to an individual player or taking the group after practice and going over things one more time just to make sure everybody's got it. He's doing what a great quarterback needs to do.

"Sometimes that doesn't happen. Sometimes guys lose their way. A lot of things out there can get in a professional athlete's way. As we all know."

CLIFF HITE first realized that Roethlisberger's dance with fame could be dicey in October 1999. It was the senior QB's first season starting for Hite's Findlay High varsity team and, piloting a no-huddle, four-wide offense that was rare for Ohio schoolboys then, the 17-year-old rampaged across the state's sportscape. Roethlisberger fired six touchdown passes in his first game, was offered a scholarship to Miami the next day and maintained a pace that would eventually yield 4,041 yards and 54 passing TDs. (He ran seven more in himself.) Reporters swarmed; suddenly the kid was special. Schoolmates were watching and talking about him constantly. Some teammates resented it.

One afternoon that fall, before practice, Roethlisberger walked into the football office and said, "I'm tired of this. I'm not doing it anymore." Hite, who's now an Ohio state senator, thought the boy was joking. But when practice started, Ben still hadn't shown; Hite sent someone to fetch him. Roethlisberger eventually walked on the field, threw a few desultory balls and stopped. He'd always liked basketball better, anyway. Hite sat him down, saw his eyes fill with tears. "He was fed up with all the attention," Hite says. "He was really upset. I think he had a moment."

Rattled, Hite told Roethlisberger that his teammates needed him; the coach gave him just enough time to think and say a prayer. "And after those 10 minutes he came back and he was Ben again," Hite says. "He's been Ben ever since."

Hite is speaking, here, about Roethlisberger the competitor, always a bit savvier and calmer than his peers. That made sense: His dad, Ken, had earned a football scholarship to play quarterback at Georgia Tech before blowing out a knee. Ben's parents divorced when he was two; he was eight, and said to have been shooting baskets, when his mother, Ida, died in a car crash on her way to pick him up. The boy grew close to his stepmother, Brenda, but even now Roethlisberger points to the sky each time he scores. He has the Chinese character for mother tattooed over his heart.

In high school, the churchgoing Roethlisberger was not known to drink or date much; with adults, especially, he was jokey—"just like Will Ferrell," Hite says—but not disrespectful. By his sophomore year, Roethlisberger was lighting up jayvee defenses and recognized by some of Findlay's football staff as the school's best QB. Hite notoriously—to future critics, anyway—started his own son, Ryan, over Roethlisberger in Ben's junior year; he moved to receiver without complaint. "I don't think his dad agreed with my decision," Hite says, "but he never, ever questioned me, either."

By the end of his redshirt freshman season Roethlisberger had broken every Miami single-season passing record and put NFL scouts on high alert. The resultant buzz also triggered the hometown radar, sensitive for any big-timing or perceived "change" in personality. When Roethlisberger returned to mostly white, conservative Findlay, with its surrounding corn and soybean fields—and a black population of just 1.4%—some people clucked at his seemingly new affinity for hip-hop culture. Part of that was small-mindedness, if not bigotry. "Ben's black now," one old classmate told her mother after seeing him during a visit home. "He was wearing, like, 'black' clothes."

Part of it was amusement at perceived "airs", street or otherwise. "Oh, my God—the bling," Cliff Hite says. "He had that big chain, he was talking differently; he would come home and everybody would go, What ... is ... this?"

Of course, plenty of young white people love rap music and urban style, even in Findlay. Whether Roethlisberger heard the scoffing and became disenchanted is unclear, but by the time the Steelers chose him with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, a decided chill had set in between star and hometown; some old teammates found him growing more arrogant, distant. Roethlisberger still had a handful of trusted close friends, still called his old mentors "Coach." But now he traveled with an entourage, expected restaurants to comp his meals and drinks. His goofy humor had gained an edge.

In 2005, after Roethlisberger's game-saving shoestring tackle against the Colts became one of the key moments of Pittsburgh's run to a fifth Lombardi Trophy, Hite quipped to a reporter that, yes, he'd taught the kid how to tackle. When Ben returned to Findlay soon after, Hite told him he'd made the whole town proud.

"And he said, 'Well, I guess I owe it all to you, huh?'" Hite recalls. "He wasn't joking, I don't think. He was acting like he was being a jerk about it, but I don't know if he actually was or not. Ben is an actor."

By then, a 50-foot Nike banner featuring Roethlisberger and the words THIS IS FINDLAY dominated downtown. Tony's Restaurant & Pub featured a $7 Big Ben burger; a local radio station was broadcasting Steelers games; two bars had become Steelers havens—all of this in the heart of Browns country. At 24, Roethlisberger was a celebrity, and shrewd enough to be wary of it. Once, on his way to visit his grandmother in nearby Lima, he stopped by to see his old hoops coach and AD at home in Findlay. Snodgrass was thrilled.

"I was kind of in awe of this fame-and-fortune thing," Snodgrass says. "At the time, we all lived it: Ohmygosh! Ben's in town!"

After their visit, as he walked Roethlisberger out the door, Snodgrass found himself gushing. "Ben, it's unbelievable the power you have," he said. "That you could stop at a gas station and just make some kid's life—the power you have to do good...."

Roethlisberger cut him short. "Or to do bad," he said.

ALISON HALL has been the executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape since Roethlisberger's rookie year. This September she was standing in an all but empty South Side bar when another woman walked in wearing a black T-shirt with Roethlisberger's name written in pink on the back and a number 7 below it.

"I'd like to go and ask, like, What are you thinking?" Hall says. But if she confronted every female in the quarterback's jersey worn in Pittsburgh—where his is the second most popular, behind Brown's—there would be time for little else. Still, Hall is most tempted when sighting one worn by a little girl. "Like, Really?," she says. "You can't rally for another player?"

Hall has her own answer. Autumn Sundays are still dedicated to watching the Steelers in her family's Squirrel Hill home. Alison's daughter, Alissa, was a high school junior the year Big Ben won 13 straight and broke local hero Dan Marino's rookie passing marks; she asked for his jersey that Christmas and wore it constantly. He was only six years older and thus, in teenage-crush calculus, obtainable. "Oh," Alissa would say, "I'm going to marry Ben."

Then she went off to college, and by the time she started coming home and hitting the South Side with friends, Roethlisberger's reputation had started to take a beating: rude, self-centered and a bad tipper to boot. Still, Alissa wore his jersey for games. "Then," she says, "when the accusations started, it got complicated."

The first allegation, in a 2009 court filing by 31-year-old Andrea McNulty, claimed that in July '08, Roethlisberger asked the Harrah's Lake Tahoe executive casino host to come to his room to fix an unbroken TV, blocked her exit and raped her; she asked for more than $440,000 in damages. Roethlisberger countersued, calling the sex consensual, and the terms of a '12 settlement have never been disclosed. (McNulty's lawyer did not return calls from SI.)

The second accusation came after a night of heavy drinking by all involved parties in Milledgeville and alleged that Roethlisberger raped a 20-year-old girl while they were alone in a club bathroom. In one of his few public statements on the matter, Roethlisberger told ESPN in 2010, "I never, never have and never will, ever, harm a female in the way I was accused of doing. I can promise you that." (Through her attorney, the woman declined to speak to SI.)

That case soon fell apart due to a lack of physical evidence, a reportedly biased stance by Milledgeville law enforcement against the alleged victim in the immediate aftermath, and the decision by the accuser not to press charges. "They made it very clear—her lawyer, her father, her—that they did not want the case prosecuted," says Bright, who spent 21 years as a Georgia DA before retiring in 2015. "But even without that, we didn't have a case. And we knew it pretty much from the beginning."

Still, though Roethlisberger was never charged in either instance, the court of public opinion had heard plenty of ugly evidence. Bright's admonishment of Roethlisberger at a press conference—"Grow up"—set the tone for his return to public life. Renown, the narrative went, had eaten young Roethlisberger alive: He wasn't bad so much as wildly immature, with core values still salvageable through family and faith.

His stepmom, Brenda, had sensed a storm gathering for some time. She and Ken had been widely admired in Findlay for their understated support of Ben's career: no big trophy case in their home; equal time showered on the feats of their daughter, Carlee, who played basketball and volleyball at Oklahoma. Well before the couple moved to Pittsburgh in mid-2009, Brenda worried to at least one friend, "No young man should be in the position he's in, where you go to Las Vegas and you get a suite and gambling money and women. Nobody tells him no."

Of course, any rationalizing by family or team or fans had its limits: Nobody should have had to tell Roethlisberger no. Other young men have become rich and famous without being accused of rudeness, let alone rape. So in the days following Bright's decision to drop the case, the Steelers informed their players they were now operating under a zero-tolerance policy. Tollner met with a few crisis-management types. "There is kind of a blueprint for rehabilitating a celebrity's image," he says. "I ran through that with Ben, and he said, 'No. I don't want to do any of it. I want to be who I am and live my life and earn people's trust every day with the way I carry myself, not by trying to convince anyone to like me.'"

Still, Roethlisberger got his message across. He talked on TV about how Ken, having heard Ben admit how far he'd strayed, cried and said, "I'm glad to have my son back." He presented himself as forever changed. "I used to tell my dad and my agent and my closest friends, 'If I can win a Super Bowl or two or three, nobody can say anything to me. I can do anything I want,'" Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2011. "That's just stupid. I know that now.... I realize that I can use the platform I'll have for something good."

Since 2007, Roethlisberger has dispersed grants for dogs and equipment to the canine units at police and fire departments; the gifts total more than $1.5 million. He drops more references to God and faith into press conferences and talks about how becoming a father altered his perspective. Many believe him. "A lot of people quit on Ben, I know," said Colleen Haney, in her number 7 jersey at this season's home opener. "Friends of mine did. But I don't hear the negativity anymore since he got married and had kids. Everybody thinks he's settled down."

Others, though, will never buy into Big Ben again. Alissa has arguments with friends about why they shouldn't back Roethlisberger. But even her own husband, a strong supporter of her mother's rape-crisis work, recently told Alissa he wouldn't think twice about wearing his number 7. "What's your problem? How can you?" Alissa asked him. But she knows. Call it hero tolerance. "When the Steelers are doing well, you kind of forget about it," says Alissa. "But if Ben had been one of my friends or just someone associated with one of my friends, I would say to people, 'Don't talk to him. He's creepy.'

"Do you ever really forgive someone for that kind of behavior? Probably not. But Ben makes it very easy to forget. If the Steelers had lost that first Super Bowl and didn't go back to another? He probably wouldn't be here. Or people would be calling for him to be gone."

ON THE first Monday night of the 2016 season, a cluster of eight men and women garbed in black-and-gold gathered at Legends Steakhouse & Sports Bar on South Main Street in Findlay to watch the Steelers crush the Redskins. It used to be a larger, more raucous group, back when the games were broadcast on local radio, but they still can muster some noise. "Big Ben's still got it!" a man bellowed when Roethlisberger lofted his first touchdown pass. Whooping ensued.

The lack of recent Super Bowl appearances has something to do with the group's dwindling numbers, and there's the quarterback's strained relations with the place. Not that anyone here wants to dwell on it. "She's Ben's biggest fan," former mayor Tony Iriti said, pointing to Jody O'Brien, the director of the county board of elections. "She'd be rooting for him even if he killed somebody."

O'Brien looked up from her plate, half-choking, and laughed. "Probably," she said.

Surrounding them were the display cases and plaques that compose the immaculate new home of the Hancock County Sports Hall of Fame, whose most accomplished inductees in its 32-year history are probably deaf baseball player William (Dummy) Hoy and NFL punter John Kidd. Which means that, by any measure, the face flickering on the massive TV on the back wall is the most famous one the town has ever produced.

O'Brien, a member of the Hall board, has nominated Roethlisberger each year since his first Super Bowl win. She filmed every one of his high school games for the Findlay coaching staff and never saw a hint of the entitlement Roethlisberger would later become infamous for. "He was just a very nice person," she says, "very appreciative of anything you ever did for him."

But, back in 2006, the fact that Roethlisberger's career was still active made admission to the local Hall problematic. Then his legal problems made waiting seem even wiser. Then some former teammates and coaches said nasty things to a few newspapers, and Roethlisberger laid down his Cory Rawson marker. Findlay residents recoiled.

"I don't know why Ben would do that," O'Brien says. "That was difficult for a lot of people to understand."

"It was kind of a slap in the face," says Josh Huston, a kicker who played with Roethlisberger at Findlay High before going on to Ohio State and the NFL. "It made people angry and turned-off. He grew up the majority of his life in Findlay, playing Findlay sports. There was a lot of hurt."

Every so often, there have been stories about Roethlisberger going so far as to claim he never actually lived in Findlay proper. That makes Iriti chuckle. When Ken and Brenda moved to Pittsburgh, they sold the Findlay house that Ben grew up in to Iriti for $160,000. "I've had people tell me I ought to put up a sign: WELCOME TO CORY RAWSON," Iriti says.

Roethlisberger still has close friends in Findlay, but the relationship between hometown and hero remains tense. Hite, for one, believes that Ben was annoyed by his comments to SI in 2010: "Ben's got to decide where he wants to go and who he wants to be. I put my money on him getting it right." But hasn't Roethlisberger since proved his old coach correct?

"How bad the bad was? You don't get suspended for nothing," Hite says. "But he's not only overcome that, he's gotten his second wind, and I think he's better than he's ever been, maybe, on and off the field. He seems to be the Ben we sent off to Miami again."

In October, during the week Roethlisberger sat out with his knee injury, he did return to Findlay High for a football game. Only a select few knew he was in town; his second cousin was playing QB for the opposing team. But there came no announcement of his presence over the P.A., no lineup of fans eager to say hello. Roethlisberger found a quiet place in the stands alongside Ken, Brenda, Snodgrass and a few other couples. The fact that he sat on the visitors' side was sharply noted, five days later, in an editorial in The Courier.

"It was good to have Ben back in Findlay, nonetheless," The Courier allowed before rehashing the Cory Rawson problem and asking for "a reconciliation between Roethlisberger and the community.... It's time to celebrate his football accomplishments and what he means to Findlay, Mount Cory and Rawson, and even Lima. What do you think, Ben? All of your hometowns are ready for a reunion. Are you?"

What the piece didn't mention is that, quietly, the Hancock Hall of Fame had finally voted in September to induct Ben—and his sister—into its 2017 class. Tollner confirms that Roethlisberger will attend. So, barring any mishap, on April 22 in Findlay the two sides will shake hands or hug, relax at some massive banquet, and Roethlisberger will stand and smile and say some friendly words. Then the room will ring with applause, shouts, and some will try hard not to wonder: Should I be cheering now? Has Big Ben come back for real?

WITH THE RETIREMENTS OF RAY LEWIS AND KOBE BRYANT, THE 34-YEAR-OLD ROETHLISBERGER IS AMERICAN SPO RTS' MOST PROMINENT POLARIZER, HIS NUMBER 7 AS PRO VOCATIVE AS A QUESTION MARK.

"I WAS IN AWE OF THIS FAME-AND-FORTUNE THING," SAYS SNODGRASS. "AT THE TIME, WE ALL LIVED IT: OHMYGOSH! BEN'S IN TOWN!"

"DO YOU EVER FORGIVE SOMEONE FOR THAT KIND OF BEHAVIOR? PROBABLY NOT," SAYS ALISSA. "BUT BEN MAKES IT EASY TO FORGET."

AFC PLAYOFF PREVIEW

THE ROAD TO SUPER BOWL LI

Greg A. Bedard imagines every team's path to postseason glory

NO. 1 SEED > PATRIOTS

FIRST-ROUND BYE

Bill Belichick's teams have won seven of eight home playoff games dating back to the 2011 season, and once again the Pats have home field locked up. What could make their journey more treacherous, even at Gillette? Drawing the Chiefs or Steelers in the later rounds. The game plan against either would be to make them one-dimensional by limiting their dangerous runners (K.C.'s Tyreek Hill, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell) and keeping a safety over the top of their best pass catchers (Travis Kelce, Antonio Brown). Both teams can be run on, which will set up big plays in Tom Brady's passing.... With a conservative pass rush, the Pats have difficulty against mobile QBs, so the Falcons or the Giants would be preferred Super Bowl foes. The Cowboys would cause the most issues, but facing a rookie QB, and against an average Dallas D, the Pats would be favored.

NO. 2 SEED > CHIEFS

FIRST-ROUND BYE

Kansas City would love to see Miami upset Pittsburgh—but odds are that the Steelers, who thrashed Kansas City 43--14 at Pittsburgh in Week 4, are coming to Arrowhead. Of course, this is a very different Chiefs team, especially on offense, in which matchup nightmares Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce have become the engine instead of spare parts. But QB Alex Smith has to attack a mediocre Steelers defense instead of just managing the game. The Chiefs' D will also have to stop RB Le'Veon Bell because Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger used play action off of Bell to shred the Chiefs' secondary.... Against the Patriots, Smith must be even more aggressive and play the game of his life, and the D will have to confuse Tom Brady with different pre- and postsnap looks.... If the Chiefs can beat the Steelers and Patriots in succession, any Super Bowl matchup would look easy in comparison.

NO. 3 SEED > STEELERS

VS. DOLPHINS (JAN. 8, 1:05PM)

If Pittsburgh can just keep Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi from coming close to duplicating his 204-yard performance in Miami's 30--15 Week 6 win, the Steelers will cruise into the divisional round with QB Ben Roethlisberger's picking apart Miami's depleted secondary. But Pittsburgh can be run on, so a win is no given.... . A road game in K.C. will be more difficult than their 43--14 home win over the Chiefs in Week 4, but Pittsburgh will roll if it rides Le'Veon Bell, uses play action to open up the K.C. secondary and forces Alex Smith to throw underneath.... The Steelers lost to the Pats in Week 7, but they didn't have Roethlisberger and New England focused on stopping Bell. They would have no such luck in the AFC Championship Game, and Pittsburgh can keep pace offensively. There are, though, serious questions about whether the Steelers, who allowed LeGarrette Blount to go off for 127 yards, can slow the Pats.

NO. 6 SEED > DOLPHINS

AT STEELERS (JAN. 8, 1:05 PM)

Miami got the short end of the AFC West Week 17 flip-flop when it drew the Steelers instead of the Texans. The Dolphins' defensive line could have wreaked havoc on Houston's average offensive line, but Pittsburgh is a much stiffer challenge. The Dolphins beat up both Le'Veon Bell (53 yards) and Ben Roethlisberger (57.1 rating) in a 30--15 home victory over the Steelers in Week 6, but Miami had top safeties Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus; both are out for the season with injuries. Still, the Dolphins are paying DTs Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips, and DEs Cameron Wake and Mario Williams a lot of money, and now is the time for them to get a return on their investment. Add in another big day from Jay Ajayi and an efficient game from QB Matt Moore throwing to his speedy weapons, and the Dolphins have the potential to upset anyone.

NO. 4 SEED > TEXANS

VS. RAIDERS (JAN. 7, 4:35 PM)

Houston received a late Christmas gift when the Chiefs and the Raiders switched playoff positions to deliver the limping Raiders to the Texans at the site of Super Bowl LI. The Texans are favored over Oakland; a win would give coach Bill O'Brien his first playoff victory, in his third season. But if the Texans don't figure out a way to block Oakland's superb hybrid edge rusher Khalil Mack, they won't be advancing. RT Chris Clark can't do it by himself, and even with help he'll have a tough time.... The Texans' game plan is the same against any team: Play their usual great defense, control the ball and clock with RB Lamar Miller and have their quarterback (either Tom Savage, who was concussed in Week 17, or Brock Osweiler) play turnover-free football with the occasional big play to dangerous WRs DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. That formula will keep the Texans in a lot of games, even with the best teams.

NO. 5 SEED > RAIDERS

AT TEXANS (JAN. 7, 4:35 PM)

Losing QB Derek Carr was a huge blow, no doubt. But Oakland can make things easier on backup QBs Matt McGloin and Connor Cook by being a run-first team behind its vaunted offensive line. The two-headed monster of RBs Latavius Murray and Jalen Richard can carry the offense and give McGloin more time and space to complete passes. It won't be easy against any team, even the Texans in the wild-card round, but if the Raiders can grab a lead in the fourth quarter, there aren't many teams better at closing out on defense, with outside rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin pinning their ears back and rushing the passer. As long as the secondary can limit big plays—a big if—Oakland can go toe-to-toe with any team. The Raiders didn't get to 12--4 just because of Carr; they have a talented, complete team, capable of a run deep into the playoffs.

NFC PLAYOFF PREVIEW

NO. 1 SEED > COWBOYS

FIRST-ROUND BYE

After being handed two of their regular-season losses by the Giants, the Cowboys would be just fine not seeing Big Blue in the playoffs. Dallas has trouble sustaining offense against that tough Giants defense. The Cowboys beat the Packers 30--16 at Lambeau Field, and after shredding the Green Bay D for 191 rushing yards, would again look to dominate on the ground. Seattle can't contain Dallas's running game, nor can it manufacture one to make the pass a viable weapon. To beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, the Cowboys would have to own the ground game to keep Tom Brady off the field and would need a performance for the ages from its offensive line against N.E.'s key defenders. In order to become the first rookie QB to win a Super Bowl, Dak Prescott would need to find WR Dez Bryant on big plays against Patriots star CB Malcolm Butler. A tall order—but not impossible.

NO.2 SEED > FALCONS

FIRST-ROUND BYE

No matter what team Atlanta draws for its first playoff game in four years, it's going to face a QB with at least one Super Bowl ring: Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning. That's not optimal against a defense that ranks in the bottom third in points and yards allowed.... The Seahawks are the preferred opponent with free safety Earl Thomas out, making Seattle susceptible to the big plays Atlanta is capable of from the Matt Ryan--Julio Jones combo.... Giants wins over the Packers and Cowboys would give Atlanta home-field advantage, and the chance to face Manning—the worst NFC QB in the playoffs—without the aid of a good line or running game. The Giants' defense is great, but Atlanta's top-scoring offense is better.... The Falcons are the rare team that can outscore the Pats in a Super Bowl, thanks to multiple weapons that can exploit an average New England defense.

NO. 3 SEED > SEAHAWKS

VS. LIONS (JAN. 7, 8:15 PM)

Given the state of Seattle's depleted offensive line (it's by far the weakest unit in the postseason) and the slippage of the defense since the injury to free safety Earl Thomas, the Seahawks could lose to anyone, even to the Lions at home. To make another Super Bowl run, QB Russell Wilson must be otherworldly with his arm and his feet, and the veteran leaders on defense (Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor) will have to produce big plays to give the offense short fields. Still, the onus is on Thomas's replacement, Steven Terrell, to rapidly improve.... If those things happen, the Seahawks could conceivably run the table: The defenders are so good that they can make any opposing quarterback, from Matthew Stafford to Aaron Rodgers, struggle.... Seattle isn't the same physically, but it still has the heart of a champion, and that's dangerous this time of year.

NO. 6 SEED > LIONS

AT SEAHAWKS (JAN. 7, 8:15 PM)

The idea of Detroit's going into Seattle and emerging with a victory is not far-fetched. The Lions' D is far from dominant, but the Seahawks are so battered on the offensive line that it's tough for them to pull away from anyone if teams keep QB Russell Wilson in the pocket and force Seattle to score on prolonged drives. And the pairing of QB Matthew Stafford and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter can execute a game plan that takes advantage of the weak links on the Seahawks' defense (CBs Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead, FS Steven Terrell).... The Lions can beat Seattle with that blueprint, but Detroit's advancing beyond the first round is nearly impossible. With the big mismatch between the Dallas line and the Lions' front seven, the Cowboys beat Detroit 42--21 in Week 16, a sign that the Lions can't keep up with the best.

NO. 4 SEED > PACKERS

VS. GIANTS (JAN. 8, 4:40 PM)

Winners of six straight, the Packers—with QB Aaron Rodgers's ability to break the back of any defense—have the potential to keep rolling through the postseason the way they did in 2011, when they won the Super Bowl as a sixth seed.... Green Bay's first opponent could be its toughest. The Giants' defense can end Rodgers's season because it can get pressure with four rushers, cover well and keep him inside the pocket. But Green Bay's O-line can match New York's front, and WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery would keep the Giants guessing. It's imperative that OLBs Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Nick Perry generate pressure on Eli Manning.... The more favorable divisional round matchup for the Packers would be Atlanta. Rodgers can outscore Matt Ryan in a matchup of MVP candidates. The Dallas ground game, however, would overpower Green Bay's D.

NO. 5 SEED > GIANTS

AT PACKERS (JAN. 8, 4:40 PM)

The Giants' defense, in average points allowed (17.8), is better than their Super Bowl winners' after the 2007 and '11 seasons. That, and star WR Odell Beckham Jr., give them a chance in any matchup, from the Packers in the wild-card round to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. But the offense, the baby of first-year head coach Ben McAdoo, has been putrid, ranking 25th in yards per game (330.7) and 26th in points per game (19.4). New York can't advance with the '16 Eli Manning. He needs to be two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning for it to win at Lambeau Field and pull off upsets over the likes of the Cowboys, Falcons and Patriots. They also need LT Ereck Flowers to go from turnstile to brick wall in terms of protection and must find some semblance of a running game to keep defenses honest. It's possible for the Giants to recapture their old magic, but it's not as likely this time around.

GREG A. BEDARD PLAYOFF PICKS

WILD CARD

MIAMI

DOLPHINS

at

PITTSBURGH

STEELERS

OAKLAND

RAIDERS

at

HOUSTON

TEXANS

DETROIT

LIONS

at

SEATTLE

SEAHAWKS

NEW YORK

GIANTS

at

GREEN BAY

PACKERS

DIVISIONAL

PITTSBURGH

STEELERS

at

KANSAS CITY

CHIEFS

OAKLAND

RAIDERS

at

NEW ENGLAND

PATRIOTS

SEATTLE

SEAHAWKS

at

ATLANTA

FALCONS

GREEN BAY

PACKERS

at

DALLAS

COWBOYS

CHAMPIONSHIP

KANSAS CITY

CHIEFS

at

NEW ENGLAND

PATRIOTS

AFC

NFC

ATLANTA

FALCONS

at

DALLAS

COWBOYS

SUPER BOWL

NEW ENGLAND

PATRIOTS 24

vs

DALLAS

COWBOYS 20

NEW ENGLAND

PATRIOTS

WINNER