Note: Browns fan Joe Donatelli has a bye this week.
By DARIN PAINTER
Let’s say you’re sitting at a poker table, and the game is No Limit Hold ’Em. The guy across from you keeps winning pot after pot. He has a reputation for being a phenomenal player — he even won twice at the Main Event at the World Series of Poker. His presence elicits fear in opponents.
Also, this guy happens to be 6’5” and 240 pounds. His attitude matches his stature — imposing and aggressive, like at any moment he might hop on a motorcycle without a helmet and break his jaw and nose, or get served with a sexual harassment lawsuit stemming from an encounter with a casino employee in Nevada.
You’re not sure what to make of this guy. You respect his talent and appreciate his consistent winning record. You realize he’s adored by the media and a rabid fan base. But people whose opinions you respect — a few sportswriters, plus several people who knew him when he attended Miami of Ohio University — tell you he’s a complete megalomaniac. They have stories about how he’s a drama queen.
You look down at your pair of pocket kings. You then look across the table at this hero figure. He keeps giving you a wry smile, like he knows something you don’t, like he’s been here before and you haven’t, like he’s in commercials that he knows you’ve seen. The dealer turns over the “flop,” and everyone at the table folds except you and him. He smirks before pushing all his chips into the middle. He’s “all in.”
You sit there, wondering what in the world he has. In a broader sense, you wonder what he’s all about. What really makes this guy tick? Perception and reality are the same at the moment. Does he actually have something now, or is he just bluffing? Maybe he’s hoping to solidify his reputation — one that obviously has worked?
You have a full house. Everyone seems to be paying hyper-attention to every move this guy makes, and man, he seems to be loving that. It’s maddening and annoying. Was he really dealt pocket aces? You remind yourself he’s a fantastic player, a two-time champion that talking heads have recently compared to Houdini. OH MY GOODNESS, WHAT DOES THIS GUY HAVE?! He might have a higher full house.
He also might be full of crap.
Essentially, that’s what it’s like to follow, support or prepare to play against Ben Roethlisberger when he may or may not be badly injured.
This is what I think: (1) Big Ben is the toughest quarterback in the NFL, a consummate winner with a history of playing through nagging injuries, and (2) Big Ben wants me to feel that way because he’s a selfish narcissist who winces theatrically after routine hits, stays on the ground a few seconds too long when he thinks the cameras are rolling and induces the media with self-made stories.
As a fan, I experience a strange dichotomy: Ben is the two-time Super Bowl champion of the football team I love, and he’s the embodiment of a personality I detest. He’s a huge winner on the field, but doesn’t seem to be a likable person off the field. I get excited when I go to a sports bar to watch him on TV, yet I don’t think I’d enjoy talking with him over a beer at that very same sports bar.
At homes and sports bars across the country, every Steelers fan is wondering the same thing. How bad, really, is his right shoulder?
The only correct answer, given Ben’s history of theatrics, ends with a question mark instead of a period. Evidently, even the Steelers aren’t sure, as they wanted a second MRI performed on the star quarterback.
Officially, Ben has a “sternoclavicular dislocation,” or “SC sprain,” which means the central end of his clavicle has separated from his sternum (chestbone). That doesn’t sound good. In published news reports, the injury has been called “uncommon” among athletes, and one that typically involves weeks of recovery time. Presumably, that’s why Byron Leftwich will almost definitely start Sunday night against the rival Baltimore Ravens.
If Leftwich starts, it’s not the end of the world. Of the 137 games the Steelers have played since Roethlisberger’s first season of 2004, Ben has missed 14, including his four-game suspension in 2010. In that span, Pittsburgh is 86-37 (.699) with its star QB and 9-5 (.643) without, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
No Steelers fan needs to hear stats, though, to realize the 2012 Steelers need Ben badly. We can’t win the Super Bowl without him.
So from a fan perspective, I hope he’s running around like crazy on third downs in December. From a human perspective (the two don’t always equate), I hope he feels healthy soon, that his shoulder and ribs (which are also injured) get sufficient rest, and that he returns to the field whenever he’s good and ready. A sore shoulder sucks, let alone a SC sprain on a professional quarterback’s most important body part.
But this is important, too: When Ben does come back, no one — not a single fan or media member — should magnify this story and act as though we’re witnessing the miraculous return of the Messiah, right in time for Christmas and the NFL playoffs.
I hope we all keep in mind that this is the same guy who told a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter that he had a partially torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, only to downplay and basically recant the news in “aw-shucks-but-I’m-fine” fashion when it appeared the next day. This is the same person who may or may not have fractured his right thumb in November 2011, an injury that caused him to miss zero games and receive a zillion “man, he’s just so tough” media comments. This is the same person who, during last year’s playoff loss to Denver, ran quickly to the line of scrimmage when the offense went no-huddle, but limped badly after incompletions.
Actuality is clear. You’re injured, or you aren’t. You have pocket aces, or you don’t.
Character is complex. It’s the cumulative result of choices. Ben has developed the image of the conquering Superman by mixing impressive actuality (2012 stats: 66.1% of passes completed, 2,287 yards, 17 touchdowns, four interceptions, 100.0 passer rating) with striking trickery. Toes are “slightly broken” and ribs are “partially cracked.” Recovery time looks like four weeks, unless it’s just one. A glove on the injured thumb “helps tremendously” but really isn’t needed. The muddled saga is never-ending.
Perhaps it’s all a self-motivating mental tactic. Highly determined people often have an abject fear of failure. Maybe Ben deals with his by heightening injury drama so the table stakes are lowered when he returns. Throw for 350 yards in your first game back in primetime, and you’ve turned in a “gritty, tough-as-nails performance for the ages.” The spotlight shines, and you’re immediately interviewed. But throw three interceptions and miss open receivers, and well, what did we expect given your severe injury? Shouldn’t we just be thrilled to see the fearless leader back in the huddle? The spotlight fades, and you’re immediately excused.
The question remains: When will Ben return? What does he really have?
Your guess is as good as mine.
I hope Leftwich plays well in the next two games (home against the Ravens, then at the Browns). Then I hope Ben is ready to go for Week 12, when Pittsburgh plays the Ravens again, for the second time in three weeks. I hope we split the next two games, and enter that huge contest with a 7-4 record.
In the meantime, let the vague injury updates, semi-truths, media hyperbole and probable histrionics begin.
What does he have? I grimaced when I saw the replay that caused the injury, and felt depleted when I heard he was unexpectedly taken to a nearby hospital immediately.
I think he’s really hurt. We Steeler fans are looking at all the information, trying to get an accurate read. I think he’ll be out for three games.
That’s my bet.
But given Ben’s flair for raising the drama, I would understand anyone who simply calls bullshit.