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ASSOCIATED PRESS



Published: Sat, January 22, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



ASSOCIATED PRESS

ARLA COPPLER'S barbershop is a shrine to her favorite hometown quarterback.

A Ben Roethlisberger clock is tacked to the wall. Newspaper clippings detailing his breakout rookie season are taped to the mirrors. And a replica of his Pittsburgh Steelers jersey greets everyone who walks in.

Across town, Tony's Restaurant has its own black and gold display and serves up the "Big Ben Burger."

All of this would have been considered treason a year ago in a town that sits in the middle of Cleveland Browns territory, the Steelers' hated rival.

Not anymore.

Roethlisberger's success -- he's won his first 14 starts and could become the first rookie quarterback to take his team to a Super Bowl with a victory over New England today -- has captivated his northwest Ohio hometown.

"Everyone on this side of the Pennsylvania line used to be a Browns fan," Dick Denman said as he got his hair trimmed this week. "I defy you to find one anymore."

Browns fans back Ben

There are some Browns fans still around. But even they've been caught up in the excitement, covertly buying Steelers gear.

"We give them a little hassle," said Ronnie Romero, a salesman at Finish Line, a sports store at the town's mall. "They always say they're supporting the hometown guy or they say it's for someone else."

Browns fan Fritz Wink, general manager of Buffalo Wild Wings, a restaurant where fans gather to watch the Steelers, admitted to buying a Big Ben stocking cap last week.

"That's as far as I'll go," he said. "I'm a big Browns fan, but Ben's a good guy. I'm rooting for him, not the Steelers. At least that's the way I rationalize it."

Anything with Roethlisberger's name, face or No. 7 jersey is selling -- magnets, bobblehead dolls, blankets, flags, mugs, toy cars, hats (pink ones, too) and even a Steelers birdhouse.

Big Ben merchandise accounts for about three out of four sales at SportsMania, said clerk Rebecca Foltz.

"I could write Steelers on a piece of paper and they'd buy it," she said.

His appeal has grown nationwide. His NFL jersey is the top seller this year, according to Finish Line and Reebok.

Down to earth

Roethlisberger's popularity has far surpassed that of the last pro football player to come from Findlay, punter John Kidd, who played for five teams before retiring in 1999.

"That was a kicker," Foltz said. "This is a quarterback."

Those around the town of about 39,000 who know Roethlisberger and his family say their down-to-earth personalities are a big reason why everyone is pulling for the quarterback.

They know him from church or they remember when he played on the high school team with a grandson.

"We've always said he is so middle America," said Jerry Snodgrass, Roethlisberger's basketball coach at Findlay High School. "He's what middle America wants to root for. You want to wear his jersey."

His father, Ken, and stepmom, Brenda, and sister, Carlee, still live in the same three-bedroom house.

There was a rumor this fall that Roethlisberger, who starred at Miami of Ohio before going to the NFL, bought them a mansion in town.

"We just rolled over laughing at that," Snodgrass said. "That's so not them."

Burger king

The hometown fans say they like how Roethlisberger is always willing to sign an autograph when he has the rare chance to come back home, about 100 miles west of Cleveland.

He hasn't been back yet, though, to eat the monstrous "Big Ben Burger" since it debuted at Tony's Restaurant in November.

The burger comes with two half-pound beef patties, lettuce, tomato and barbecue sauce. Cheese is an extra 7 cents. It's topped off with a Steelers flag attached to a toothpick.

Even the signs advertising the burgers on each table have become coveted items, said Tom Brown, owner of Tony's.

"They keep swiping them," he said. "We had to replace 19 last weekend."




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