Now that the tailgaters um, I mean "vigil-keepers" have left the Mercy Hospital parking lots, it's time to admit the truth: Ben Roethlisberger is one of a very few people on the planet for whom a broken face is preferable to, say, a sprained knee or a broken hand.
The facial scars may not trouble Ben; they may even lend his goofily charming looks an air of grizzly football credibility. But scars or no, the success he has, or doesn't have, will be measured against this accident for the rest of his career. If he continues to be successful, his survival will be viewed as a miracle. If he doesn't continue to be successful, his legacy will be spoken of with funereal music in the background, the mangled motorcycle shown in sepia tones, with voice-over narration prompting, " so much promise "
Meanwhile, everyone from the Post-Gazette's Ron Cook to ESPN's Daily Quicky has taken Ben to task for setting a bad example. They believe his admirers won't wear helmets in their quests to be like Ben. But it's not Ben's fault that some people are dumb enough to do something dumb that their favorite quarterback is dumb enough to do. Dumb as that sounds. And hey, if Gov. Ed Rendell is dumb enough to repeal helmet laws, can we blame a brash 24-year-old for taking advantage of the fact?
Still, the accident leads to all kinds of questions regarding obligation. What do players owe their coaches? Their teammates? Their fans? Do we have a right to expect that Ben live his life off the field with prudence and caution? I suppose his employers do, and they are able to not honor his contract, should they so choose. But the fans? Well, we have no recourse, really. And I'm not sure we should.
Football players are fond of saying that they go to battle together, like soldiers. For the field general to do something that prohibits him from leading his troops, as it were, is arguably tantamount to mutiny. But I suspect Ben's teammates will be more forgiving than the average fan. Because the accident and its aftermath is typical Ben. There's always been something magical about him, from his first start in a Miami downpour to the tackle in Indianapolis up to and including this accident. Ordinary players don't succeed playing Ben's brand of football: audacious, suffused with joy. Just as ordinary people don't survive the kind of accident Ben survived.
He plays like he's invulnerable. He plays without fear a game that has paralyzed men. I doubt you can turn that mindset off and on at will. Even his prior injuries were no big deal because he bounced back so quickly.
Last week, Sports Illustrated's Michael Silver quoted coach Bill Cowher regarding Ben's study habits as saying, "You can't force-feed someone. That's how you let players develop. They've got to be the ones that want to do it, that take the initiative. It can't come from you."
Ben's going to push the envelope; it's just who he seems to be. There's a saying in sports that applies here: Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. But maybe Ben can learn the life lesson that motorcycles are dangerous and doubly so without helmets without his coach or team having to do the hard work of trying to rein him. I just hope that I'm right in thinking this lesson won't quash his ballsy playing style. In fact, in the long run, it may even work to his advantage: If he can survive a helmetless head-on collision with a Chrysler, why should he fear Ray Lewis?
It's also possible the team will use this as new motivation since they don't have Jerome around to ride back to his hometown. (He's from Detroit, in case you missed that last year.) The miracle of Ben may continue. From near disaster in June 2006 to repeat Super Bowl Champion in February 2007? With this quarterback, it's possible.