105239479 8 The Return Of The Changed Big Ben

(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The rehabilitation of Ben Roethlisberger the NFL player takes another step when the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback plays a regular-season game on Sunday for the first time since January.

Self-described “anxious, nervous” months of waiting end for Roethlisberger with a chance to prove he’s the player he was before his aberrant behavior led the NFL — at his own team’s urging — to suspend him for six games, later shortened to four.

The Cleveland Browns will be on the opposing sideline at Heinz Field, eager to mar the two-time Super Bowl winner’s return.

Roethlisberger’s suspension didn’t ruin the Steelers season, as some around the league anticipated; instead, his teammates used the quarterback’s absence as a motivator while winning three of their four games. Their defense is playing much like that of their 2008 Super Bowl-winning team, and their revived running game is one of the NFL’s best.

The Steelers proved they could change for the better while Roethlisberger was away. Now he wants to prove he’s changed for the better, too.

Teammates say a player who once seemed intent on living up to his “Big Ben” persona is no longer aloof or condescending to some of them. He’s been more outgoing and patient with Steelers supporters, especially during a training camp in which fans who once talked of rejecting him chose to embrace him. He also appears to be more accepting of a balanced offense, rather than one that allows him to throw 35 times a game.

“The guys on the team opened their arms and welcomed him back,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “We missed him.”

Allegations that Roethlisberger sexually assaulted a University of Georgia student in March did not result in criminal charges against him, and he has proclaimed his innocence. But there is no question his widely portrayed image of a bar-hopping, immature, pampered, indulgent athlete with a sense of entitlement hurt him and the image-conscious organization he plays for. The job of repairing it is not yet completed.

Roethlisberger was equally embarrassed and humbled by his troubling offseason, one that might have cost him his Steelers career if it weren’t for the fact it’s difficult to find $102 million quarterbacks.

“At times when things happen in your life it causes you to reassess your approach. I think that’s what he’s going through,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “I still think Ben is Ben. Sometimes when you’re faced with adversity, particularly adversity that’s created by you, there’s an assessment or there’s an evaluation of some of the decisions you’ve made.”

While Steelers fans have shown an eagerness to forgive, Roethlisberger also understands he might not get another chance at redemption should he fail again.

“Second chances are an awesome thing and that’s all I’ve asked for,” he said. “I want to be a Steeler for life. I love playing for this city and these fans. It’s something that’s very important to me. I know a lot of people say ‘I don’t really care about the fans and what people say about me.’ Well, I do. I want people to accept me and to embrace me as their quarterback and as a Steeler.”

Roethlisberger insists he’s not intent upon quickly reshaping an offense that was decidedly unbalanced without him. The Steelers are ranked eighth in rushing but a dead-last 32nd in passing after starting No. 3 quarterback Dennis Dixon and No. 4 Charlie Batch during his absence.

“The key for me is not try to force anything, and not go out and try to be Superman,” Roethlisberger said. “Just go out and play my game.”

His teammates would be satisfied with that.

“Ben’s like a little kid, the first one out there for practice, ready to get started,” Ward said. “I’m excited to get out there with him and get things going.”

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