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Published: Saturday, 4/17/2010

Roethlisberger reaction runs strong in Findlay; hometown weighs QB's alleged off-field behavior

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE PROJECTS EDITOR

FINDLAY - Walk into Tony's Restaurant and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is as big as ever.

Customers are greeted by an autographed Steelers jersey and other assorted memorabilia commemorating the Findlay High graduate and his pro football glory. Still featured on the menu is the Big Ben Burger, a pound of ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and Tony's barbeque sauce on a five-inch bun for $7 -in honor of Roethlisberger's No. 7 jersey.

Cheese costs seven cents.

"We're still selling it every day," said Connie Tagliapietra, assistant manager at Tony's and the twin sister of Bonnie Brown, whose husband, Tom, owns the restaurant. "If people here were totally against him, we wouldn't be selling the Big Ben Burger like we've been."

Ms. Tagliapietra said the Browns - the Tony's Restaurant owners, not the Pittsburgh football rival - still support Roethlisberger despite repeated allegations of sexual misconduct made against him by at least three different women in the last nine months.

But in this tight-knit, conservative community of about 37,000 people, a shared sense of disappointment and disbelief has spread among Findlay residents who watched Roethlisberger grow up and who became Steelers fans when Pittsburgh made him its first-round draft pick in 2004.

From Roethlisberger's former neighbors on Woodley Terrace, to city hall, to parents of current Findlay High athletes, feelings run strong about their hometown hero and the off-field behavior that has, since July, led him to be sued by one woman for sexual assault, investigated by local law enforcement in Georgia for another alleged assault, and accused of assault by a different woman in Georgia.

"I think he's a stupid jerk," said Tom Daley, a former neighbor of the Roethlisberger family on Woodley Terrace. Roethlisberger's parents moved to Pittsburgh last summer.

Kevin Widman of Findlay says the whole town is pained by Ben Roethlisberger's troubles. Kevin Widman of Findlay says the whole town is pained by Ben Roethlisberger's troubles.
JEREMY WADSWORTH / THE BLADE Enlarge | Buy This Photo

"His dad and mother were real nice people. It's just amazing to me, the way he grew up, that he would do something like this. I can't believe it."

Though it was announced this week that Roethlisberger would not be charged for an alleged rape at a Milledgeville, Ga., nightclub last month, reported details of Roethlisberger's involvement with a 20-year-old Georgia College & State University sophomore have sullied Roethlisberger's reputation at home.

Last summer Roethlisberger was sued in Nevada for sexual assault, and news broke yesterday that another woman in Georgia levied unsubstantiated claims of assault against the Steelers quarterback.

"The first one, you give him the benefit of the doubt," Findlay Mayor Peter Sehnert said. "But then another one and now maybe another one after that? It's not looking good. Something's not right here."

Although Mr. Sehnert acknowledges that Roethlisberger has not been criminally charged for his involvement with any of his accusers, the Findlay mayor said "It's a little bit disheartening that he would at least put himself in that position."

Jeff Hook, a Findlay man who was at the high school yesterday watching his son play a junior varsity baseball game, said that more than anything he was "disappointed" by Roethlisberger's off-field actions.

"Maybe he got caught up in some of the glamour and fame of pro football," said Mr. Hook, who attended St. Paul's United Methodist Church with the Roethlisbergers. "I hope he gets his priorities back in order and again represents himself, his family, and the city of Findlay in a positive way."

Jim Leonard, who wore a Steelers cap while walking to watch the same Findlay baseball game yesterday, said he became a Pittsburgh fan because of Roethlisberger. He said the scandals hadn't stopped him from cheering for the Steelers and Roethlisberger , but Mr. Leonard also admitted he hadn't followed the reports of alleged assaults closely.

"If he were guilty, he would definitely lose my respect," Mr. Leonard said. "I am not sure if I would watch him or not."

Former Findlay basketball coach Jerry Snodgrass said he never saw behavior in Roethlisberger that "was anything different from any other kid in high school."

"More than anything, you hope that things aren't true," Mr. Snodgrass said.

Kevin Widman, a Findlay man whose son was a freshman football player at Findlay High School during Roethlisberger's senior year in 1999, said the whole town is pained by Roethlisberger's troubles.

"It's like having your own kid get in trouble," Mr. Widman said. "You want to have your kid's back as much as you can, but you also hope they understand there are repercussions for their actions."

Gabe Miller, manager at the Landing Pad Sports Bar and Grill in Findlay, a spot for Steelers' fan groups to watch Pittsburgh games in the fall, said Roethlisberger has done much for the community here through charity work. He said he expects black No. 7 jerseys to fill the bar again this fall.

"He's a hometown hero," Mr. Miller said. "He's done great things for the community. We're all still going to back Ben."

Sports writer Steve Junga contributed to this report.

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com,

or 419-724-6559.



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