Latrobe, Pa. Ben Roethlisberger was so worried that the Pittsburgh Steelers fans who once embraced him would boo him, he couldn’t recall being so nervous and apprehensive before a football practice.
What Roethlisberger didn’t expect was this: Waves of cheering supporters wearing his No. 7 jersey and knocking over temporary security fences to get the autograph of a player whose vulgar off-field behavior led the NFL to suspend him for six games.
Roethlisberger, so disliked in Pittsburgh a few months ago that he wondered if he’d ever regain a sliver of his previous support, was greeted warmly by an enthusiastic crowd estimated at 10,000 on Saturday at Saint Vincent College. He heard few, if any jeers, and many fans appeared to go out of their way to embrace him.
There were cheers when Roethlisberger and wide receiver Hines Ward arrived on the practice field together, and more when the quarterback found Antwaan Randle El on a pass route.
Pumped up by the response, Roethlisberger couldn’t recall throwing a single incompletion during a nearly two-hour practice.
“I was nervous, scared, anxious, a lot of emotions,” Roethlisberger said.
Once practice ended, fans clamoring to get his signature knocked down a mesh plastic security fence near the Chuck Noll Field grandstands.
Roethlisberger, noticing one youngster getting shoved aside, took off one of his practice shoes, signed it and gave it to 8-year-old Micah Delattre of Houtzdale, Pa.
“Everyone was pushing me and I was crying and he just gave it to me,” Delattre said.
A few minutes later, Roethlisberger took off his other shoe, signed it and gave it away, too, as he scribbled his name countless times for a half-hour.
Whether it was a calculated public relations move or random act of kindness, it was one of the first signs that Roethlisberger is trying to repair his badly damaged image.
While the Steelers fans troubled by the accusations he sexually assaulted a Georgia college student during a night of bar hopping in March no doubt skipped the practice, Roethlisberger and his teammates still weren’t anticipating such a forgiving crowd.
“A lot of my teammates came to me and said regardless of what comments they hear, not knowing what’s going to happen, that don’t worry, we’ve got your back,” Roethlisberger said. “So that’s special.”
Roethlisberger was more outgoing and animated than usual during both of the practices, only one of which was open to the public. Drawing such a steep suspension — a punishment that could be trimmed to four games by commissioner Roger Goodell — apparently convinced him that changes were needed, some teammates suggested.
Roethlisberger expects to talk to Goodell when the commissioner visits camp on Thursday, though it’s likely any reduction of the suspension won’t occur until the preseason ends.
“For many years, people didn’t know what was really going on with Ben,” Ward said. “He’s starting to open up and be more personal with guys. Today he was talking to everybody. I really think he understands the situation. I think you could really see the excitement in him, competing and playing football again. ... He’s working on trying to improve himself.”
This is the third time in five years that Roethlisberger’s off-field behavior has caused major problems for the Steelers.