Sunday, April 25, 2010

Play's the thing in football heaven

Steeler faithful gathered for Blitz mixed on Ben, focused on year ahead

Sunday, April 25, 2010
By Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Steelers fans Danli and Kal Coubati, and their children Ameer, 7, and Omar, 10, of Wayne, N.J., pose with the six Lombardi trophies at the Steelers Fan Blitz on Saturday at Heinz Field.

They came to gaze onto the turf of Heinz Field, to walk reverently past the six-pack of Lombardi trophies glinting in the lights of the Great Hall and to stand in line for player autographs -- in short, to get an off-season dose of Steelers football.

If quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's recent off-field behavior troubled the faithful at Steelers Fan Blitz on Saturday, those cares were as difficult to see as a rival punter buried under the Black-and-Gold's defensive line.

Fans descended on Heinz Field to remember the glorious past and weigh the odds of making it to the playoffs, at least, next season -- matters larger than the fortunes or misfortunes of one player, even a two-time Super Bowl winner.

"I think the secondary's still going to be a problem ... I think the offense is still going to be good," Scott Fakner of Monongahela mused.

While Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward and LaMarr Woodley jerseys seemed most popular with the crowd, more than a handful of fans wore Mr. Roethlisberger's No. 7, and they weren't bashful about it.

"Until the day they trade him or he's done with the Steelers, I will not hang this jersey up. I will support him," said Sherry Kline, who drove from Frostburg, Md., for the event with her son, Drew Whetzel, 15, and a couple of friends.

"Everybody deserves a second chance," she said.

Mr. Roethlisberger wasn't among the stars scheduled to appear at Comcast-sponsored Fan Blitz, which gave fans an opportunity to tour the locker room, get autographs from current and former players, see the memorabilia in the Great Hall, watch live coverage of the NFL draft and walk onto the field to attempt field goals.

The event coincided with day three of the draft, but it also came three days after Commissioner Roger Goodell meted out a four- to six-game suspension to Mr. Roethlisberger -- the latest fallout over a rape allegation in Milledgeville, Ga.

Though authorities did not charge Mr. Roethlisberger with assaulting the college student who accused him of assaulting her in a bar restroom, Mr. Goodell said he was troubled by the star's conduct and urged him to turn his life around.

Also last week, the Steelers added options at the quarterback position by signing Byron Leftwich from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mr. Roethlisberger on Monday is expected to make a statement in response to the commissioner's action.

Mike Crossman, a native of Indiana, Pa., and his family traveled from their Cleveland home for Fan Blitz, with daughter, Becky, 12, wearing Mr. Roethlisberger's jersey. That's not so surprising, perhaps, considering that she and her brother, Matt, 10, have remained true to the Black and Gold even though they're teased at school and pelted with peanuts and other items when the family attends Browns-Steelers games at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Mr. Crossman said Mr. Roethlisberger made some bad decisions, but believes he can turn things around and stay out of the spotlight when he's off the field.

"I hope that the Roethlisberger thing doesn't detract from focusing on the goal," he said, referring to a winning season.

On Saturday, fans' comments about Mr. Roethlisberger ranged from support to disappointment to outrage. Their thoughts about the suspension ran the gamut, too.

"We're hoping Ben's replacement pushes him right out the door," said Sheila Neiderhiser of Donegal.

"I think Steelers fans have high moral values ... Maybe somebody else wants to try harder," she said.

Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548.

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