PITTSBURGH – You see it all around town these days. The "Big Ben" signs gradually returning to the windows in working-class hillside neighborhoods. The No. 7 jerseys on the backs of suburban convenience-store clerks, grade-school teachers — even, strikingly, children.
Most prominently, you see it in how the discussion unfolds when talk turns to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Instead of phrases like "criminal investigation," ''NFL suspension" and "bad example," the words today are back to what they were a couple years ago: Completed passes. Makes things happen. Leader.
With the Steelers one green-and-white obstacle away from reaching their latest Super Bowl, the NFL star turned hero in free fall is, in the eyes of Pittsburgh fans, on the rise again — albeit gradually and, to hear some people tell it, provisionally.
"I was surprised," says Ray Skoff, 41, a lifelong Pittsburgher and Steelers season-ticket holder for two decades. "Behavior and attitude-wise, I believe he's done a total 180, how he presents himself on and off the field. It seems totally different."
Roethlisberger sat out the season's first four games on the orders of the NFL, which said he had violated the league's personal conduct policy — an outgrowth of a college student's accusations that he sexually assaulted her in Georgia last March. The quarterback was never prosecuted over what was the second such set of allegations against him.
Between March and September, Roethlisberger's status in Pittsburgh sometimes seemed touch and go. The Rooney family, owner of the team for three generations, was watching warily. Some of the most stalwart of Steeler fans demanded he hit the road for good.
Roethlisberger replica jerseys abruptly disappeared from some stores, and parents talked of barring their kids from wearing them. "Forgive but don't forget ought to be the fans' attitude," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorialized in early September.
Though its fans are fiercely loyal, Pittsburgh also tends to wear its no-nonsense mill town sensibilities like a medal of honor. People here have never hesitated to upbraid pro-sports players considered to have outgrown their britches.
Pirate legend Roberto Clemente spent years enduring grief from fans and sports writers who said he whined, faked injuries and didn't give his all. His successor in right field, Dave Parker, got the same treatment for being arrogant. In the early 1990s, Pirates Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla fared little better when their egos were perceived to have swelled.
But nearly five months after Roethlisberger's suspension, a willingness to forgive seems to have become the order of the day for Pittsburghers — and not merely because they once again have a powerhouse football team on their hands.
Since his return from NFL-ordered exile, Roethlisberger has behaved as if he's living up to his April statement of regret. He has come across as respectful, collaborative, humble, even communitarian. And just as importantly, there have been no new reports of problematic behavior, either in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.
"Pittsburghers, they're more forgiving," Skoff says. "But the person has to try."
The sense of pro-Pittsburgh protectiveness is starting to come back, too. In conversations around the city and its suburbs this week, people treated questions about The Roethlisberger Saga with a weary look of been there, done that. On Thursday, an article on the website of KDKA-AM radio summed up pregame questioning of the quarterback this way: "National Media Hammers Big Ben About His Past."
Roethlisberger's response? Politely, graciously and somewhat evasively, he stuck to a single talking point: He's moved on.
— On "redeveloping your relationship with the city": "You know what? It's about the last thing on my mind right now. It's about playing football, and that's what I try to do is play football games and win and just be me."
— On the games he missed at the beginning of the fall: "The great thing is that was so long ago I forgot all about it. Right now it is not about living in the past for me; it is about here and now and this game. We can't really afford to look back and focus on the past."
— On his growth over the past season: "When it comes to being a person, I just try to be the person my parents raised me to be."
Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward offered a bit more insight. Asked this week about the new Roethlisberger, Ward told of a teammate who is making efforts to hang out with everyone rather than staying in cliques, and who is more extroverted both in the locker room and beyond it.
"And not just with his teammates, but in the community, staying extra during training camp, staying after when he doesn't have to, but he's doing it anyway," Ward said this week. "And he's going out there and he's showing he's trying to become a better person."
That's what Ann Loomis sees, too. Roethlisberger began attending her suburban church last summer, and she has watched him emerge as someone she calls "just a regular guy going to church on Sunday."
"Professionally, I think the cockiness that was typically attributed to him is no longer there. You can see a genuine person who loves what he does. He loves football, first and foremost, but I would venture to say that his newfound faith has become greater than that," says Loomis, 36, who lives north of Pittsburgh.
"He is becoming a man and finding himself through his mistakes and his restoration as well," she says. "This past weekend, he could have been partying it up after winning the game and sleep all Sunday. But I will tell you, that man was in church on Sunday morning."
Last week, there was no sign of fan hesitation as Roethlisberger completed a 58-yard pass to rookie Antonio Brown, grabbing a 31-24 victory over Baltimore to advance to Sunday's game against the Jets. In fact, the Pittsburgh crowds have been rabid enough of late to impress both head coach Mike Tomlin and safety Ryan Clark, who both took public note of the enthusiasm.
Super Bowl or not, however, the feeling in Pittsburgh is that Roethlisberger is on the road to recovery and on sort of a community probation — something that, if it is to become permanent, will require a long-term and as-yet undetermined alchemy of good football and good behavior.
"I think it's a slow acceptance. I think it will take more than one successful season," Loomis says. "He's coming to a point now where people are willing to say, 'You know, there is something a little bit different.'"
AP freelancer Chris Adamski contributed to this report.