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.
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.
They missed the playoffs following a Super Bowl victory after Roethlisberger was badly injured during a motorcycle crash in 2006. Last season, a former Nevada hotel employee filed a civil suit accusing him of assaulting her. That case remains unresolved.
While Roethlisberger will practice less than usual because fill-in starter Byron Leftwich also needs time with the regulars, the two split time Saturday. Roethlisberger ran the opening series, by design.
"He's our quarterback and everybody else is fighting for a job," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "We'll switch it every day cause he's got to get with the young receivers and the other guys have to get with the veteran receivers."
Roethlisberger can't be with the team during his suspension, so the only practice time he will get until October will occur during camp.
"Coach Tomlin did a great job of putting Byron and him both with the first group," Ward said. "It's still training camp for Ben and he has to go out there and get his rapport."
Roethlisberger knows the reception he gets won't be anything like this on the road — or even at home, when not every Steelers fan will be a Roethlisberger fan. But he said repeatedly he's trying to move on, get back to football, and he hopes the fans eventually will, too.
Some, it appears, already have.
"I was happy just being right here at the field with him," said 25-year-old Matt Wellen of Williamsport, Pa., who drove nearly four hours each way to watch in a Roethlisberger jersey.
Wellen admittedly tries to see the good in athletes who have angered their fans. Besides his Roethlisberger jersey, he wore a Tiger Woods hat. All that was missing, he said, were his LeBron James shoes.
"I was thinking about wearing them, but I thought it was a little too soon," Wellen said.