On a sunny summer morning at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on Pittsburgh's South Side, we find wide receiver Markus Wheaton running a crossing route. He catches a dart from Ben Roethlisberger in an OTA practice. Despite the glowering defensive presence of James Harrison, Wheaton continues across the field.
The veteran linebacker, as solid and thick as an overpass support beam, has built a career out of making foolish receivers regret the day they first tried on a helmet. If this had been a game—or maybe even a training camp practice—the play would have concluded with Wheaton flat on his back, incapable of counting to three.
Afterward, Roethlisberger calls Wheaton over. Some quarterbacks might give their receiver a tip on how to avoid the linebacker or applaud him for bravery. Roethlisberger does something different. Quietly, he tells Wheaton to get down next time. He is not concerned about how many extra passing yards he might get if Wheaton stays on his feet. He is concerned about his receiver's well-being.
The small gesture escaped the notice of many—but not all. Veteran guard Ramon Foster overheard the exchange. He says it was one of the most impressive things he's ever heard a teammate say to another. Foster says it speaks to Roethlisberger's "devotion" to his teammates.
"It's not just him working on himself," Foster said. "He wants to help others be better."
The anecdote may surprise NFL fans who don't really know Roethlisberger and cling to a memory of him when he first came into the league.
"I'd be the first to admit I wasn't a good teammate early in my career," Roethlisberger said.
He's evolved into the opposite of a bad teammate—perhaps the league's best teammate.
When he came to Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger was given some well-meaning advice: "Don't get too close to your teammates. There is too much turnover in the NFL, and you'll be sorry when you lose your friends." And so he kept a distance.
He won the first 14 games he started as a rookie, then in his second season became the second-youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. But behind the Steelers curtain, he couldn't figure out how to blend in on a veteran team. To the old guys who lorded over the locker room, he belonged near the bottom of the hierarchy with the other young guys. The quarterback who was getting all the glory saw his place as near the top of the hierarchy. The attitude soon led to a clash with big-dog wide receiver Hines Ward.
"There are some guys who had animosity towards me, and probably rightfully so," Roethlisberger said. "I probably could have helped that by being a humble guy who was the best teammate I could be."
With guidance from his father Ken and his agent Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger started to see the big picture in his fourth season.
Roethlisberger's fifth NFL season concluded in Raymond James Stadium with confetti falling on the Steelers like snowflakes in a blizzard and thousands of black and gold towels being waved. The Super Bowl-winning quarterback sought out backup quarterback Charlie Batch on the field. When he found him in the chaos, they shared a long embrace, and Roethlisberger thanked Batch for a night they shared the previous March.
On that night, Roethlisberger called Batch and asked if he could go out for a beer. They met at Quaker Steak & Lube in Pittsburgh and sat at a table in the corner where they wouldn't be disturbed. He asked Batch how he could become a better leader and teammate. Three hours later, Batch had told him what he learned about relationships in his eight NFL seasons.
Roethlisberger had recently signed an eight-year, $102 million contract that made him the highest-paid Steeler in history. They talked about how his new paper could affect the way he is perceived in the locker room, and about how Roethlisberger needed to evolve and improve at helping everyone around him.
That season, Roethlisberger began taking his linemen out to dinner the night before games. It is a tradition that continues to this day.
Tradition is important in Allegheny County, and being a reliable teammate is tradition here. In the steel mills that once defined this area, failing to have a teammate's back could have resulted in a tragic accident. Here, teammates took turns crawling in the suffocating tunnels below the furnaces, passing buckets of ashes to one another. Whether black or white, Scotch-Irish or German, teammates had to work together selflessly and efficiently.
Then came the industrial collapse in the 1970s and '80s. The region took a devastating hit, but Pittsburgh came back with teamwork. Public and private sectors joined forces to rebuild infrastructure. With incentives from government, higher education and health care fields boomed. Investors came together on biotech and technology projects, jobs were created and the economy grew strong.
Roethlisberger became ingrained as a Pittsburgher, and this local culture has become a part of who he is.
As time has passed, he has continued to grow as a teammate. In some ways, Roethlisberger's development as a teammate has paralleled his development as a man. This is not the same Roethlisberger who left his teammates in a lurch by being suspended the first four games of the 2010 season after a sexual assault accusation.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said he even has seen Roethlisberger become a better teammate since 2012, when he joined the team. When Haley was hired to replace Bruce Arians, Roethlisberger was not happy. But he sacrificed his personal feelings to do what was best for the team. The result has been a coach-player marriage that produced Roethlisberger's most productive season last year.
"With time, you understand you can't keep being a selfish player or person," Roethlisberger said. "It's the ultimate team sport, and in order to be successful, you have to be selfless. Just like being a successful father, you have to be selfless."
Roethlisberger started changing diapers three years ago when Ben Jr. came into the world, and the workload increased two years ago when Baylee Marie came along. Fatherhood, as it will do, helped Roethlisberger understand selflessness. And patience. And how to appease varying agendas with finesse.
He said his faith has also helped reinforce the importance of being kind and caring to the people in his life. He has even taken some teammates to worship services.
"When he and I were younger, there were a lot of good veteran leaders on the team," tight end Heath Miller said. "It's not easy to come in and vocally start leading a group of 30-year-old men who have been to AFC Championship Games and Pro Bowls. So leadership is something you grow into. He certainly has."
In those early years, Roethlisberger might have been the guy sitting alone in the cafeteria. Now, at 33, the second-oldest player on the roster, he's likely to join the guy sitting alone in the cafeteria.
Wheaton maneuvered to secure what he considers to be the prime spot in the Steelers locker room—the stall next to Roethlisberger's. And he uses it to his benefit, firing off questions like a preschooler and soaking up whatever wisdom the quarterback might pass along.
Since Wheaton is expected to replace Lance Moore as the Steelers' primary inside receiver, Roethlisberger has been going over Wheaton's routes with him after every practice. He also quizzes the receiver regularly.
"He goes out of his way a lot to help us young guys out," said Wheaton, a third-year player. "Whoever wants to learn, he's willing to help them. …He is always open to conversation. He never blows anybody off."
Roethlisberger wants to be one with his teammates. When he was taking up more than his share of space in front of their lockers after a recent practice, he asked Wheaton if he needed the two-time Super Bowl champion to move.
A challenge for Roethlisberger at this point is bridging the generation gap between him and his twentysomething teammates. They are more likely to want to groove to rap in the weight room, whereas Roethlisberger wants to go old school with soft rock—think Eagles. In reggae, Roethlisberger has found common ground with teammates who grew up in a different era.
The younger crowd often bonds at nightclubs, but that isn't Roethlisberger's scene anymore. He is more comfortable talking over a meal. During one such dinner, the younger crowd spent a portion of the evening trying to educate Roethlisberger about Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
"It's like my dad," Wheaton said. "My dad don't know nothing about none of that. It's the same thing with Ben. He's not really into it. We joked with him, tried to get him into it. He wasn't having any of it."
At another dinner, Roethlisberger asked each player what his goal was for 2015 and what he thought he needed to do in order to be his best. He also shared what he thought was necessary to make a great team and to make a great player. He reflected on some of the great teams he has been a part of.
In the offseason prior to last year, Roethlisberger invited Wheaton and fellow young wide receivers Antonio Brown, Justin Brown and Derek Moye to Newport Beach, California, for a few days so they could run routes, throw and catch and get some football time in during the period when NFL teams are not allowed to practice. The chemistry the quarterback built with his receivers in California helped the Steelers pass for more yards than 30 teams last season.
"He helped me be a better player by always challenging me," said Antonio Brown, a former sixth-round pick who led the NFL in receiving yards last season. "No matter what you achieve, he's always harping on continuously improving, finding ways to be better."
So this spring, Roethlisberger brought Brown, Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and running back LeVeon Bell on a four-day excursion to Georgia, where they stayed at Roethlisberger's Greensboro lake house and trained at the University of Georgia. They worked out about two-and-a-half hours a day in advance of OTAs.
"We got great work," Bell said. "And we had a great time. It was a great thing for him to do."
Getting the on-field work in Georgia was great. But the best benefit, as Roethlisberger saw it, may have been relationship-building. There were 90 minutes in the car each day to talk and laugh. There was the daily stop at the Waffle House for breakfast. Pool time. Most of the afternoon was spent on one of Roethlisberger's boats or playing around on his jet skis. And then there were dinners out.
There were also the plane rides—on a private jet with catered meals. This was not an inexpensive endeavor, and Roethlisberger picked up the entire tab.
"The cost doesn't matter," Roethlisberger said. "I wanted to get to know the guys, and I thought it could help make us better. If it made me closer to them—and it did—it's all worth it. If it helps us win a Super Bowl, it's all worth it."
Roethlisberger, who ranks 40th on the 2015 Forbes' Celebrity 100 list of highest-paid entertainers (five behind Paul McCartney and 10 ahead of Bradley Cooper), also paid for the Newport Beach trip, as well as separate trips to Greensboro for the offensive line that were purely social.
Additionally, Roethlisberger hosts get-togethers for teammates at his Pittsburgh-area home, where they swim in a pool with No. 7 on the bottom, and at his father's house, where they ride ATVs and grill steaks. A willingness to share is part of what endears Roethlisberger to his teammates.
That's why Batch was confused when former Steelers teammate Rashard Mendenhall, in a Men's Journal interview to promote a television show he is helping to write, claimed Roethlisberger stuck a rookie with a $25,000 dinner tab.
"When I heard that, I was scratching my head," Batch said. "I don't know where Rashard was going with that. I was there."
According to Batch, the Steelers had a longstanding tradition of making rookies pay for a dinner for their position groups. The tradition since has been stopped. In 2008, it had been getting out of control, and Roethlisberger and Batch were trying to police some of the dinners, Batch said. That's why they showed up at the Capital Grille in Pittsburgh, where Steelers offensive linemen and a few running backs were eating. Between the red meat and red wine, the tab called for more green than any rookie's credit card could cover.
Someone suggested Mendenhall, the Steelers' first-round pick, should split the bill with offensive lineman Tony Hills, the Steelers' second-round pick.
"Rashard is like, 'This isn't my position group, so I shouldn't have to pay,'" Batch said. "'This should fall on Tony Hills.'"
There were some cracks about Hills putting on an apron and washing dishes. But Hills' credit limit was nowhere near the cost of the meal, there was no sympathy from his linemates and he was sweating. Batch said Roethlisberger left the room and quietly pulled the manager of the restaurant aside. He told him to charge Hills what his credit card would cover, and he would pay for the rest. There was talk of Hills eventually repaying Roethlisberger.
"Ben never asked him for the money, and Tony never repaid him," Batch said.
Roethlisberger goes out of his way to be kind to rookies, Batch said. Whenever the Steelers had a rookie QB, he never had to pay the bill for the position-group dinner. Roethlisberger would take his credit card as if he was going to use it, and then pay himself.
"He even did a good job communicating with rookies he knew wouldn't make the team," Batch said. "He wanted to make sure he shared the experience with those guys so when they go back to tell stories in the barbershop or wherever, they remember him as a good teammate and say, 'Man, Ben was a pretty cool dude.'"
Being a backup to Roethlisberger has perks.
"I sat next to him in that room for nine of his 11 years," said Batch, now a media analyst in Pittsburgh. "I know what he's done, and it's a lot. And I'm not even including the little things he would get for the [quarterbacks] room: snacks, drinks, things to fill the refrigerator in there, or buying comfortable chairs for the room."
Roethlisberger also takes special care of the offensive linemen. He has a connection for getting DVDs of movies prior to their commercial release, and when he gets them, his blockers get first dibs before the movies are distributed through the locker room.
The linemen have come to expect extravagant Christmas gifts from their quarterback. Last year, Roethlisberger had a tailor visit the Steelers facility and had each lineman fitted for a car coat, as well as slacks and dress shoes. There were diamond cuff links one year. Another year, he had a special basket made for each player, with customized robes, towels, wines and various other presents.
Some of his most precious gifts haven't cost a dime, though. When Antonio Brown decided to stay away from voluntary workouts this offseason, his quarterback called. Roethlisberger told him to make sure he showed up for OTAs, because he didn't want to see the media and fans turn on the receiver.
"He has made me a better person by talking about life things, family things," Brown said. "He has told me about mistakes he has made and encouraged me not to make the same mistakes. He talks about making sure we are doing the right thing for our families and being the best man we can be."
Roethlisberger also has provided counsel for Bell since he was charged with possession of marijuana and DUI last August. Bell, who was in middle school when Roethlisberger won his first Super Bowl, clearly looks up to his quarterback.
"He has told me I can't ever be in that situation again," Bell said. "He has had situations where he has gotten in trouble. He got some grief for it. I'm getting that same type of thing now. He told me just to ignore it all and let my play speak for itself. He said eventually people will forget it as long as you become a better person and player. They will remember the good things.
"He's always telling me right from wrong. He has said if I ever need help or have a problem, I should let him know."
Bell feels secure that his teammate has his back. And that is just how it is supposed to be in Pittsburgh.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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