Ex-neighbors stand by Roethlisberger
The black and gold Ben Roethlisberger jerseys are long gone from store display windows in his hometown. Stacks of bobblehead dolls at a downtown shop haven’t been touched for months.
Adoration for the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback has faded after two women accused him of sexual misconduct within the past year, sparking questions about his character and judgment.
Yet many remain reluctant to criticize the hometown sports hero, even as they agreed with a Georgia prosecutor’s assessment that Roethlisberger needs to “grow up” and be a better role model.
“He’s one of ours,” said Carol Allen, of Findlay. “I’m not saying he was right or wrong. But he’s family.”
Few residents in the town where he grew up were surprised when a district attorney in Milledgeville, Ga., announced Monday that Roethlisberger would not be charged after a college student accused him of sexually assaulting her in a nightclub bathroom last month.
“People are pretty loyal to him, but it’s happened twice now so it does make you wonder,” said Mark Manuszak, who works in Findlay and lives nearby.
Just a few NFL seasons ago, Roethlisberger posters decorated barbershops and bowling alleys in the middle of Cleveland Browns territory. Fans couldn’t get enough merchandise as long as it had Roethlisberger’s name, face or No. 7 jersey — magnets, blankets, flags, mugs, hats and clocks.
“Anything that smelled like Ben was going out of here,” said Cathy Linhart, owner of House of Awards and Shoes.
She used to be a Browns fan and switched to the rival Steelers when they drafted Roethlisberger in 2004. Now she wonders if he’s a different person than the one she sold basketball shoes and baseball cleats to when he was in high school.
“I’m shocked. I thought he was a great role model,” she said. “I don’t get it. He’s from a solid family, a solid hometown.”
Roethlisberger acknowledged on Monday that he’ll need to work to regain the trust of teammates and fans. He still faces a lawsuit by another woman who said he raped her in 2008 at a Nevada hotel. He has denied the allegation and is seeking counter-damages in the matter.
Many in the western Ohio town about 40 miles south of Toledo still remember Roethlisberger as the kid with close-cropped hair — not the glassy-eyed bar hopper celebrating his birthday in Georgia who authorities said bought shots for a 20-year-old student and her friends.
They know him as the star athlete who donated autographed footballs to local charities, bought a police dog for the city, and came home every year for a celebrity basketball that raises money for the high school teams.
“That’s why people aren’t quick to rush to judgment because they do know him from high school and church,” said Tony Iriti, who first coached Roethlisberger in grade school and has stayed close to the family.
He just hopes that Roethlisberger will stop putting himself in places where he can get into trouble.
“It’s just like your kids,” said Iriti, the town’s former mayor. “You want them to make the best judgments and put themselves in good positions all the time. Sometimes, that just doesn’t happen.”