A slimmed-down Ben Roethlisberger whistled practice passes to his receivers for the first time in five weeks, and a teammate didn’t need to watch video tape to know what he’d just seen.
“He’s been working hard at home,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “He wants to be great this year. So, hopefully, he will (be).”
Even if considerable repair work needs to be done, on the field and off it.
The two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback didn’t talk to reporters after practicing Tuesday for the first time since drawing a six-game suspension April 21 for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
The penalty resulted from a Georgia college student’s allegation that he sexually assaulted her in a nightclub, and though Roethlisberger does not face criminal charges in the case, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the quarterback’s drinking and carousing failed to meet the league’s expectations for player behavior.
Roethlisberger took part in voluntary practices April 19 and 20, but was barred from working out again until he underwent a league-ordered behavioral evaluation and was cleared by Goodell to resume team activities. The commissioner still hasn’t decided if Roethlisberger’s suspension will be reduced to four games.
The consensus among Roethlisberger’s teammates: Good to have him back, now let’s move on – even if they realize that can’t possibly happen for months.
“We’re all trying to get over this. I think we’re all already over this. We want to get ready for the season,” said lineman Willie Colon, the only Steelers teammate known to have been with Roethlisberger the night of the incident in Georgia back in early March.
“We’ve got a lot of people we got to knock down. Our focus is being world champs again, and that’s where we’re all headed to.”
Roethlisberger, wearing a white No. 7 jersey atop a yellow practice shirt, took all the snaps with the starters during the
90-minute practice, partly because Byron Leftwich had a previously scheduled commitment and missed the voluntary practice.
Coach Mike Tomlin also departed early for the same reason and didn’t answer questions.
The only noticeable difference in Roethlisberger since those earlier practices is the weight he’s dropped, several players said.
“He’s been on the treadmill a little bit,” Colon said. “He’s trying to get a beach body on.”
Leftwich is expected to divide training camp snaps with Roethlisberger as the Steelers prepare one quarterback to start the season and a suspended quarterback to take over sometime in October.
No NFL team has gone through such a scenario before starting a season, and wide receiver Antwaan Randle El cautioned it won’t be easy.
“It’s very delicate, and I don’t know how they’re going to do it,” Randle El said. “It’s a tricky situation. But you’ve got to come up with a plan and work it.”
Roethlisberger can take part in training camp and play in exhibition games, but will be barred from all team activities once his suspension begins at the start of the season.
He has spoken only once since being accused of assault in Milledgeville, Ga. – when he read a brief statement on April 12. A team spokesman offered no explanation for Roethlisberger’s decision not to talk on Tuesday.
Still, Roethlisberger seemed to smile more than usual while practicing, and backup quarterback Dennis Dixon said it was evident this wasn’t a routine day.
“He was excited, and that’s what you wanted,” Dixon said. “He loves what he does, and getting back on the field, it was great to see his familiar face.”
Randle El is convinced Roethlisberger has undergone considerable soul searching the past three months and is determined to become a better person.
“Any time you go through something, it makes you step back and take a look and evaluate, who you’re hanging around with and who you’re involved with. It makes you do a little bit of an evaluation of your life,” Randle El said.
However, the accusation – plus a separate lawsuit accusing Roethlisberger of sexual assault in Nevada – has visibly angered and disappointed the Steelers’ huge fan base, with many saying they’ll never feel the same way about the franchise again until Roethlisberger is gone. His merchandise sales have plummeted, and some business owners say they can’t give away his jerseys.
Regardless, his teammates are offering Roethlisberger any support he wants, Randle El said. They hope that the public eventually comes around, too.
“We’ve all been through different things, we’ve all made different mistakes,” Randle El said. “When you make those mistakes, as a player, as a friend, as anybody, you’ve got to have forgiveness in your heart. To be able to forget and move on, that’s the kind of thing you have to do and expect. Not just from players but from friends and family, and even everybody that was involved. Everybody makes mistakes, but you can’t hold onto it for life.”