- Associated Press - Thursday, December 30, 2010

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Back in August, Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t stop smiling as the Steelers trudged through the first week of training camp. No teammate was immune from kidding, no autograph request was met with a glare or a condescending shrug of the shoulders.

This was the new, improved Roethlisberger, a player as good as the one who won two Super Bowls in four seasons but also a much different person, one who was less rude and less crude. His troubling offseason and the four-game suspension that resulted from it changed him, he insisted. He promised to mend his ways.

Some Steelers who had grown tired of the old Roethlisberger wondered if it was only an act. And, if it was, how long it would last. They’d seen too much of the self-absorbed Roethlisberger, the what’s-in-it-for-me Roethlisberger, and they questioned if one could change his personality so quickly.

Five months later, those teammates and the organization they play for are pleasantly surprised with the preliminary results.

As Roethlisberger winds down his suspension-delayed regular season, he appears to be as determined as ever to put what he calls the “Big Ben” character he had become into his distant past. There have been no public slip-ups, no locker-room grumbling about any regression in the way he performs his job or treats people.

And in the year in which he didn’t talk to reporters for months following allegations he sexually assaulted a Georgia college student _ he wasn’t charged _ the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association voted overwhelmingly to present him with a media cooperation award that is named for Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. Past winners include Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney, Rod Woodson, Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward.

If it’s all an act, it’s becoming a long-playing one.

Roethlisberger called it an “awesome honor” _ perhaps because he realizes he never came closing to winning it before.

“I said I needed to be more cooperative with people, be a better person,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s just a change I wanted to make in my life.”

Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers’ center, doesn’t know if Roethlisberger truly is a changed man because he never saw the player who admittedly was self-absorbed and occasionally rude to his own teammates. All he knows is this Roethlisberger _ a man he likes, a player he respects.

Pouncey is the first Steelers rookie offensive lineman in 55 years to make the Pro Bowl, and he partly credits Roethlisberger for his success.

“He’s helped me so much,” Pouncey said. “He’s always giving me small little tips to help. I’ll do anything for Ben. If we’re out anywhere, man, if anything ever goes down, I’ll be the first one there for him.”

Not as many Steelers players likely would have offered such a remark in the past.

Roethlisberger said he’s not trying to invent a person who wasn’t there before but attempting to be the person he was raised to be by his parents in Findlay, Ohio. There, he was a high school basketball star who had to wait until his senior year for the chance to start at quarterback, an experience that helped develop him into an intense competitor.

And if there were any Steelers teammates who didn’t respect that winning-is-the-only-thing mentality, they did when Roethlisberger shrugged off a broken nose and a badly injured right foot to play every down since he his suspension ended Oct. 17 against Cleveland.

“He’s a winner,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “He gives us a chance to win every time. I love the way he plays.”

He’s also earned nothing but praise from an organization that willingly went along with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s plan to suspend him for six games, a punishment later cut to four games. Goodell said Roethlisberger has gone above and beyond what the league sought, and no one associated with the team or league has said anything to the contrary.

Despite the delayed start to his season, there’s been no significant falloff in Roethlisberger’s performance. He’s led the Steelers to an 11-4 record and, if they beat the Browns (5-10) on Sunday, they’ll secure the AFC North and a first-round playoff bye. He has completed 225 of 367 passes for 2,920 yards, 15 touchdowns and, so far, a career-low five interceptions.

He has completed his last 136 passes without an interception, the longest such streak of his seven-season career. He has done so despite throwing to a much-altered receiving corps; Santonio Holmes was traded to the Jets, second-year receiver Mike Wallace became a starter and rookie Emmanuel Sanders gradually moved into the No. 3 receiver’s role.

“Interceptions drive me crazy,” he said. “That’s something I try to pride myself in.”

Even as teammates such as James Harrison were fined for dangerous hits, Roethlisberger absorbed several hits to the helmet that weren’t penalized, including a blow by the Ravens’ Haloti Ngata that broke his nose. Raiders defensive end Richard Seymour also punched him in the face, drawing an ejection.

His teammates complained that quarterbacks such as Tom Brady were protected, but theirs was not. Roethlisberger voiced no vehement protests.

Ben doesn’t have to prove anything to us,” Pouncey said. “When he came back into that (Ravens) game with the broken nose, we couldn’t believe what he went through. He was in excruciating pain, but he still made all the plays. He’s one tough guy, and I’m glad he’s our quarterback. It’s an honor.”