Fans warming back up to Big Ben

There will be no boos or crude taunts when Ben Roethlisberger takes the field Sunday for the Pittsburgh-New York Jets AFC Championship Game.

Nor should there be.

The Steelers quarterback could do nothing more to defuse the anger of a rabid fan base following the offseason shame he brought upon himself and this proud franchise. By all accounts, Roethlisberger has followed through on his promise to become a better person and teammate after accusations of sexual assault against a then 20-year-old Georgia college student forever sullied his reputation. Roethlisberger also re-emerged as one of the NFL’s top passers after serving a four-game suspension, which further accelerated the healing process.

"He was pretty stupid," Pittsburgh resident and die-hard Steelers fan Terry Eggerton said. "He should have been a little smarter, but he’s a terrific quarterback. If he weren’t, he’d have been crucified."

But in this football-crazed city, not everyone is willing to fully embrace him.

Roethlisberger and the Steelers faithful are like a divorced couple that is inching ever closer toward reconciliation. Each side has fallen in love with the other once again but there is still enough lingering pain and distrust to prevent the announcement of a wedding date.

"Ben has gone about his business and kept a very low profile," said David Hill, a project coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh. "He plays hard every game and doesn’t complain about the amount of hits he has taken this season. When he’s interviewed, he always credits his teammates and deflects any personal praise. Overall, I think he’s doing a good job of repairing his image.

"Having said that, I still am not ready to buy his jersey."

Clothing merchants in Pittsburgh’s popular Strip District began selling a different brand of Roethlisberger garb this spring after what can best be described as the sexually charged Mess in Milledgeville. There were numerous T-shirts spoofing a player who some fans once thought could walk on the water surrounding Pittsburgh. The regular Roethlisberger merchandise was heavily discounted and still didn’t sell well.

That has slowly changed. Such articles as Roethlisberger jerseys and ski caps were back on display Wednesday along with standard Steelers goods.

"Sales have picked up considerably," said Jimmy Coen, owner of the Yinzers in the Burg novelty shop. "It’s picked up to where it’s viable to carry items. Before, it was dead, dead, dead."

Several blocks away, the Roethlis-burger has once again become the top-selling sandwich at Peppi’s. Sales hadn’t dipped too much after the Roethlisberger fiasco, but Peppi’s cashier Celeste Ellwood said crude wise cracks from people buying the caloric-yet-delicious hoagie have finally stopped.

"I think people were doing that because they were disappointed in him," Ellwood said. "You’re a Steelers fan for a number of years and all of a sudden he did this … Yeah, it hurts."

The atmosphere was no better inside Steelers headquarters. Other sordid stories about Roethlisberger’s boorish social behavior around Pittsburgh began to surface. A civil lawsuit alleging improper sexual conduct by Roethlisberger during a 2008 visit to Reno, Nev., was given more public credibility than when it was initially filed (the case is still pending). Some fans mailed their Roethlisberger jerseys to team headquarters along with angry letters demanding the club cut ties. Players became deluged with media questions about Roethlisberger and — more importantly from their perspective — were forced to open the regular season with backup quarterback Byron Leftwich under center.

Yet once the drama subsided and Roethlisberger disappeared to serve his suspension, the Steelers did something few expected: They came up big even without Big Ben. A 3-1 record even while using three starting quarterbacks (Leftwich, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch) had a galvanizing effect upon the Steelers. It served as a reminder — especially to Roethlisberger — that no individual is larger than the team even though the Steelers wouldn’t be in hot pursuit of their seventh Lombardi Trophy without No. 7.

"This season was a testament of who we are — a bunch of resilient guys regardless of the circumstances we faced and the adversity of not having Ben for the first four games," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said after Wednesday’s practice. "Nobody gave us a chance to win. We were one minute, 10 seconds away from beating Baltimore at home. We’d have been 4-0. Now Ben comes back and we’re still playing good football."

Roethlisberger already was a changed man upon his return. He had spent countless hours trying to rebuild his reputation through charitable outreach, more pleasant exchanges with the media and spending extra time during the preseason signing autographs. But where Roethlisberger may have made the biggest strides is inside the locker room.

"He has a greater appreciation for football, the camaraderie with the guys, being here," said Ward, who didn’t hide his disappointment in Roethlisberger after the Milledgeville incident. "He doesn’t want to jeopardize or do anything to lose that.

"I think Ben having that taken from him has helped. It’s definitely made him a better teammate and person. He’s going out and hanging with all the guys — rookies, veterans, black, white. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes, he only hung out with certain people. Maybe they just knew him better than others or whatever, but that’s what your quarterback’s got to do. That’s how you develop trust and confidence."

Just like with his recent engagement, Roethlisberger declined to shine much light Wednesday on how he has repaired his relationship with the city where he has won two Super Bowl rings since being drafted in 2004.

"You know what? It’s about the last thing on my mind right now," he said. "It’s about playing football. That’s what I try to do: Play games and win and just be me."

To his credit, that isn’t such a bad thing anymore.