FORT WORTH, Texas – Now it can be told: Ben Roethlisberger ate DINNER!
With a KNIFE and FORK!
And had a few DRINKS!
In a RESTAURANT!
During SUPER BOWL week!
Breathless reports about that meal the other night did not make clear whether the Pittsburgh Steeleers quarterback chewed his food with his mouth open or kept his napkin on his lap for the duration.
Either way, it immediately became the most scandalous morsel of what might be the dullest Super Bowl week ever.
"It's normal for guys to eat dinner," his coach, Mike Tomlin, protested, "believe it or not."
The next thing he would have us believe is that Roethlisberger also puts on his pants one leg at a time.
"During the course of the season, guys go out on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," Tomlin said. "Believe it or not, guys live lives."
Who knew — judging by the reaction Thursday to a TMZ.com report that the Steelers' quarterback treated his offensive line to a meal, then provided the late-night entertainment himself by performing his version of "Piano Man" from a bar stool.
"Ben, with all the issues you've been through," a reporter asked, referring to Roethlisberger's suspension earlier this year for violating the league's personal conduct policy, "why did you think it was appropriate to go out Tuesday night and spend some time in a bar?"
Roethlisberger was sitting behind a table on a small stage, wearing a sleepy expression, a gray sweatsuit that looked like a pair of pajamas and fleece-lined slippers. He smiled through a very bushy beard.
"It was superstition and tradition. Tuesday night I take my linemen out to dinner ... and they get to pick. Usually it's a steakhouse or something. They wanted to go to a barbecue place this time. It was really good."
Obviously, Roethlisberger wasn't talking about his rendition of the Billy Joel pop standard. That was a disaster, if the brief video posted with the report is any indication.
The guys he treated to dinner were mostly noncommittal. All of them loved the food; the singing, not so much.
"I don't want to throw him under the bus," guard Chris Kemoeatu said.
Roethlisberger, however, did take a shot at what he called "the crack TMZ staff," insisting that he and his pals didn't violate the team's 1 a.m. curfew.
"We were home way before," he said.
What he didn't contest was the part of the story about dropping $1,000 for the evening — $800 tab plus $200 tip — maybe because the tip made him look fairly generous. We also assume he didn't vote in the website's poll about whether the jaunt was a "good" or "bad" idea.
Considering the scrapes Roethlisberger has gotten himself during seven years in the NFL, the answer might seem obvious.
The four-game suspension earlier this season was his first. But it was the second time Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in less than two years, which led Commissioner Roger Goodell to take action.
His teammates insist he's a changed man. Retired quarterback Kurt Warner, who, like Roethlisberger, has been to the Super Bowl three times, said he hasn't had a chance to speak with Roethlisberger recently. But for a guy with one of the most straight-laced reputations in sport, he fiercely defended Roethlisberger's decision to go out.
"You can't just get stuck in your room and think about football 24/7," Warner said. "The conventional wisdom is, 'This week we don't want any distractions.' But I'm a believer that you do need distractions.
"Everybody says, 'Make this like any other week.' Well, you don't sit in your hotel room every other week. You go home from practice, you go out to dinner with your friends, you go to a movie, you chase your kids — you have plenty of distractions that take your mind off football. And I think you need that, maybe more than ever, during Super Bowl week."
As for Tomlin, he probably didn't vote in the poll, either.
"I'm not concerned one iota," he said.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org