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Friday, October 15, 2010
Which Ben Roethlisberger is back?

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

A little over a month into the season and I still don't know what to make of these 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers.

They're 3-1, but none of those three wins has been against a team from last season's playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger
The player is back. But what kind of person is he?

They have the worst passing offense in the league, but no defense has given up fewer yards or allowed fewer points.

And then, of course, there's what to make of the $102 million question that is Ben Roethlisberger, who returns Sunday against Cleveland after a four-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy.

He says he's excited about playing.

Well, I'm excited to see if he's finally learned anything. After a near-fatal motorcycle accident and two sexual assault allegations over the past few years, this cat's running low on lives, if you know what I mean.

I'm not a judgmental prude who is going to begrudge a 20-something millionaire the occasional chance to get his party on, especially since I was known to shut down a club or two when I was his age. And older.

But I wonder if after the controversy over the second sexual assault incident in Georgia this summer and his subsequent suspension, he's finally figured out a workable balance between the two personas that seem to inhabit his 6-foot-5, 241-pound body.

One is Ben Roethlisberger, small-town kid from Findlay, Ohio.

The other is Big Ben, entitled NFL superstar celebrity.

Ultimately, how the rest of the Steelers' season plays out -- and, for that matter, how stable the franchise stays -- hinges on the quarterback finding the right balance between those two very different people.

I remember the first time I met Ben Roethlisberger. It was at Leigh Steinberg's annual Super Bowl party after Roethlisberger's rookie season. The dude was so laid-back and chill, someone had to point him out to me. He wasn't being a church mouse, but he wasn't the life of the party, either. And he might've been, considering he was Steinberg's star client, had just gone 13-0 as a starter in the regular season and led the team to within a game of the Super Bowl. (Pittsburgh lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.)

Ben Roethlisberger
In his first media appearance as a Steeler after the 2004 draft, Roethlisberger didn't yet look like Big Ben.

Over the years, I've seen both Ben Roethlisberger and Big Ben around at other festive functions. While rumors of Ben Roethlisberger being somewhat of a party-boy date to his days at Miami of Ohio, people didn't begin experiencing the Big Ben persona until he started going to Pro Bowls and winning Super Bowls.

They say fame doesn't change people as much as it reveals who they really are. I don't think that's necessarily the case with Roethlisberger. He's reportedly done some incredibly stupid things, but people who know him and have worked with him throughout his career say at his core he's a decent person. They say that at some point, that decent person got caught up in his own hype and lost himself to the Big Ben persona.

And while neither investigation (the one in Milledgeville, Ga., and an earlier probe into an alleged incident in Reno, Nev.) into the sexual assault allegations has resulted in criminal charges, it is clear that the quarterback is having a difficult time with the line between what he knows he should do and what his glitzy NFL lifestyle tells him he's entitled to do. Sometimes, his choice has been in the direction of what he can get away with.

In Michael Singer's "Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself," there is a passage about the lessons of life that death teaches us: While people can teach you that men and women of all races are equal and that there is no difference between the rich and the poor, death instantly makes us all the same. The question is, are you going to wait until the last moment to let death be your teacher?

In other words, every second of every day is an opportunity to embrace the simple truths about our lives and the gifts we have been given. Will Roethlisberger wait until his playing days are over before he realizes it is a privilege -- and not a right -- to be a star quarterback in the NFL? Or is this fragmented season truly his "aha!" moment?

Ben Roethlisberger
We know Roethlisberger will say the right things from here out, but how can we be sure he'll do the right things?

For the time being, who the heck knows? I don't. Not yet.

Public failures make for good TV; but it's what we do in private, when no one is looking -- when the camera isn't on -- that ultimately determines how our stories will end. It's expected that Roethlisberger will be on his best behavior now that the personal conduct suspension is over; everyone will be watching him. It's expected that he'll say all the right things in his postgame press conferences; everyone will be listening to him. It won't even be a surprise if he leads the Steelers to another Super Bowl.

But it's what Roethlisberger decides to do when the music is loud and the drinks are flowing -- when Big Ben wants to come out and play -- that will tell us what, if anything, he's learned.

Touchdowns and Super Bowls might keep the demons under wraps for the time being, but he can't run from himself. If he's still an entitled jerk at the core, it eventually will show.

So while the jersey on the Steelers' quarterback Sunday will read "Roethlisberger," we won't really know who that is under center until the game is over ... the football game Sunday and the other, more important game he's playing now.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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