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Getting Back in Swing of Things

A month after his near-fatal accident, the Steelers' Roethlisberger says he'll be ready for camp.

July 14, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

STATELINE, Nev. — Before Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident, people looked at him as a great young quarterback. But when the Pittsburgh Steelers' star walked onto the golf course Thursday, bearing almost no scars from a June 12 collision that nearly took his life, people saw something different: a medical marvel.

He didn't look stitched together, even though his face is held in place by five plates. He wasn't rigid or robotic when he moved. He looked like the same old Roethlisberger, but for a spider-shaped scar on top of his head -- hidden by a baseball cap -- and a slight bloodshot tinge to his eyes.

"It just looks like I had a long night," he said, taking a break after a practice round for this weekend's American Century pro-am golf tournament at Edgewood Tahoe.

But some reminders aren't as visible -- and, after all, this was 18 holes of golf, not four quarters of football.

"I still spit blood," he said. "I don't know what it is, but that still happens."

He said he feels ready for Pittsburgh's training camp, which begins July 28, but conceded there were lingering questions about what type of head protection he might need, beyond a standard helmet. He expects to play with the same abandon he did in rising to NFL stardom, in February becoming the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

"I don't think it's going to make me slide instead of jumping over somebody," said Roethlisberger, 24. "I'm going to play, and I'm going to be who I am. I'm not going to let something like this change who I am. I may be more careful, but I'm not going to change. Coach [Bill] Cowher says he doesn't want me to change. He says, 'The free spirit that you are is what makes you special.' "

Roethlisberger, who made his first public appearance Wednesday at the ESPY Awards in Hollywood, got an ovation from the gallery Thursday morning when he walked onto the practice range. He drew the biggest crowd, even bigger than Donald Trump's, and signed dozens of autographs at every tee box.

"I was stunned when I first saw him," said Mike Ventura, a Pittsburgh fan who got his Steelers cap signed. "I was amazed he was in such great shape. It doesn't look like anything happened to him."

Something did happen, of course, and only now is Roethlisberger beginning to reveal how serious the situation was. He wasn't wearing a helmet in the accident, and collided with a car that had turned left in front of him. He slammed into the windshield, then hit the ground headfirst. Doctors later told him he was within a minute of dying, largely because his mouth and throat were filling with blood.

"Something got split at the top of my throat, either an artery or a vein, and it was just draining blood into my throat," he said. "They said it was like a faucet. Someone saw it and just blocked it."

Witnesses at the scene said a dazed Roethlisberger sat up and tried to stand immediately after the collision. He doesn't recall that. The first thing he remembers is someone, perhaps an ambulance attendant, asking him if he knew his own name.

"I remember just saying, 'Tell me this isn't happening. Tell me it's not true, that it's a bad dream,' " he said. "I was either in the ambulance or on the ground. My eyes were swollen shut and I couldn't see. I remember giving them a couple of numbers to call, and that's the last thing I remember."

He has been widely criticized for his decision not to wear a helmet, and he subsequently said he would always do so in the future. Many experts have weighed in on why he might have chosen not to wear one, including one psychologist who said it could have something to do with the fact Roethlisberger's mother was killed in a traffic accident when he was a child. Roethlisberger hasn't spent much time mulling those theories, and he cringes at the suggestion he's a born daredevil.

"I like 'free spirit' better," he said. "The thing was, sometimes I rode with one, sometimes I didn't. It wasn't like I always rode without one. It's not like I'm trying to be a rebel, like everyone tells me to so I won't do it. That's not the way it is. I'm just being me, doing what I feel comfortable doing, being a free spirit and enjoying life."

He said he feels grateful to be alive, thankful for every minute he can spend with his family and friends. He hasn't been haunted by bad memories or nightmares, and he tries not to think about what might have happened.

"I'm not one who's going to say, 'What if.' " he said. "We've talked about it a couple of times, me and my buddies. I'll be like, 'Hey, I'll tell you what, that was close.' I've never sat there and just cried and said how close I was to dying. That's not who I am. I'm a lucky son of a gun."

Still, the reminders come with every autograph request, every pat on the shoulder.

"People come up to me and say, 'Gosh, we're so glad you're alive,' " he said. "It's almost like there's even more love coming from people in Pittsburgh and all over the place. Usually the first thing they'll say is, 'You're so stupid ... but we're glad you're alive.' "

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