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Steeler Ben Roethlisberger's Lead Is Hard To Follow

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Today, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers will lead their teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, in Super Bowl XLV.

Lead, that's the verb often used with quarterbacks and not always so with Roethlisberger. Two sexual assault investigations - he was never criminally charged - led to his suspension by NFL's commissioner. Reports also surfaced that Roethlisberger was immature and not particularly respected by teammates.

NPR's Mike Pesca examines the seemingly ironclad notion that successful quarterbacks are leaders.

MIKE PESCA: If for the first six years of his career, all you heard of Ben Roethlisberger was the praise heaped on him by game announcers and all you saw of him were the high fives of teammates, and the pair of Super Bowl trophies he hoisted in the air, you would think what they always told you - that Ben Roethlisberger was a leader.

It wasn't until this year that a torrent of negative stories emerged, and that members of the Steelers press corps would tell tales not of Big Ben, but of Bad Ben.

Mr. MARK KABOLY (Reporter, Pittsburgh Tribune Review): He didn't talk to the media much, didn't like us very much. We didn't like him very much.

PESCA: Mark Kaboly, reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, has covered all of Roethlisberger's career. He, like every member of the Steelers press corps, recounts numerous times when Roethlisberger was petty or aloof, often for no reason. For instance, there was the time when then-Pittsburgh Pirate Jason Bay came by the Steelers facility for an arranged photo op. Roethlisberger cursed when he saw his fellow rookie of the year, then proceeded to ignore him.

Mr. KABOLY: Made a professional baseball player sit in a locker room in front of the media for 25, 30 minutes, while he was getting dressed, didn't acknowledge him. Finally he came out, looked at Jason Bay, and said: Oh, if I knew you were coming I would have signed a ball for you.

PESCA: Celebrity athletes don't have to be nice to other celebrity athletes. They don't have to be nice to the media. They don't even have to be nice to their teammates. Yet to earn the title leader, you'd think that accomplished athletes would have to display some virtuous qualities beyond ability on the field.

But former quarterback Ron Jaworski says that performing the duties of a quarterback extremely well can make one seem like a leader.

Mr. RON JAWORSKI (Former Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles): Well, the quarterback is a position of leadership. And I think that's why we ascribe -almost give - you know, leadership to that quarterback, if he's earned it or not.

PESCA: Giants quarterback Phil Simms battled Jaworski's Eagles almost 20 times as a player, but agrees with him on the point that leadership can be a consequence, as much as a cause of success.

Mr. PHIL SIMMS (Former Quarterback, New York Giants): It just happens naturally. For a good quarterback, I don't know if he has to do anything except play well, and it's going to give him qualities to be a leader. Because players -look, that's what you look for first - deliver for us on the field, then we'll listen to you.

PESCA: Roethlisberger has been mostly circumspect during Super Bowl week, saying he wants to keep focus on the game. When asked about his personal failures, he frames his answers in terms an athlete would be drawn to - as a contest or a challenge.

Mr. BEN ROETHLISBERGER (Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers): It's not time to reflect because really it's about this game. But, you know what? When you're faced with challenges in life, you find ways to try and overcome them.

PESCA: The quarterback has left it to teammates, like Hines Ward, to say that they credit Roethlisberger with improved maturity. Former Packer great Bart Starr says it is the teammates who should be credited up to this point.

Mr. BART STARR (Former Quarterback, Green Bay Packers): The other thing we have to remember is there are 10 other guys on that field with you all the time that you're also depending on. And so, I think it behooves them to conduct themselves in a way that those players want, need, and will commit themselves to supporting him.

PESCA: If your teammates are good enough, they could make the quarterback a leader.

Mr. STARR: They can certainly help.

PESCA: Former Redskin quarterback Joe Theisman believes that performance is so much more important than personality.

Mr. JOE THEISMAN (Former Quarterback, Washington Redskins): The physical part of going out on the football field is a leadership aspect of it. And Ben earned the respect of the guys by being beat up the way he has and continuing to go out and play.

PESCA: Theisman means Roethlisberger is literally beat up during games. But his comments could apply to the quarterback's personal travails, as well.

The former players quoted in this report, who've all been Super Bowl quarterbacks, have eight championships among them. They all expressed belief in Roethlisberger's personal growth. Even the Pittsburgh media voted him the Most Cooperative Steeler this year. And if history is any indication, none of this should have any effect on how he plays in the Super Bowl.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, Dallas, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.