ARLINGTON, Texas - By the end of the night, any questions about redemption melted away like the snow falling softly outside Cowboys Stadium.
If there was any consolation to losing the Super Bowl for Ben Roethlisberger, for being cast as the villain in the morality play that dragged on all week, that was it. That — and the fact that tough as things went for the Steelers quarterback, he still had a better week than the NFL, Cowboys and stadium owner Jerry Jones and all the people in the Dallas area who invested so much time, money and emotion to bring the big game to town and fell flat on their face.
Not long after Green Bay's 31-25 win was in the books, Roethlisberger sat in front of his locker, his face buried in a towel to hide the tears. He wept so earnestly that when 78-year-old Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney turned up for his customary post-game handshake with the players, a tradition that stretches back decades, he took one look at his struggling 28-year-old quarterback and simply kept walking.
"It's disappointing to lose. For me," Roethlisberger said, "it's even more disappointing because you let a lot of people down that stood up today to fight. ..."
He paused to rattle off the names of four teammates. Before walking into the interview session, Roethlisberger had detoured into the shower and shaved off the beard that covered his chin since the playoffs began. There was no way to mistake how hard it was wrestling with his emotions. He kept biting his lower lip.
"There are a lot of throws I'd like to have back," Roethlisberger said.
He didn't have to elaborate. Two of them were intercepted, though neither was entirely Roethlisberger's fault.
On the first, Packers defensive lineman Howard Green hit his arm and set in motion a wobbling pass that safety Nick Collins picked off and returned for a touchdown late in the first quarter. On the second, as the Steelers were climbing back into the game with five minutes left before intermission, safety Jarrett Bush caught up to receiver Mike Wallace just as the ball arrived, then ripped it out of his grasp.
Yet Roethlisberger insisted the responsibility was his.
"I don't put the blame on anybody but myself," he said. "I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down, the fans, my coaches, my teammates. It's not a good feeling."
Moments later, Roethlisberger softened his stance, but only so much.
"It's a crazy game. The ball's got to bounce your way. Sometimes it does," he said, his voice low, "and sometimes it doesn't."
That might be a fair description of Roethlisberger's roller-coaster season, which actually stretched all the way back to last spring. That's when he led a band of teammates on a booze-fuelled birthday outing and wound up facing a second allegation of sexual misconduct in less than two years. Though neither incident resulted in charges, Commissioner Roger Goodell ruled Roethlisberger had violated the league personal conduct policy and slapped him with a four-game suspension.
"From Day 1, we had to overcome a lot of obstacles, starting with losing our quarterback," Steelers nose tackle Chris Hoke said. "That gave us some added fire to get here."
Some corners of the media tried to stoke that same fire one more time earlier this week. TMZ.com, the ultimate "gotcha" outlet, came upon a video of Roethlisberger out on the town Tuesday night with his linemen, singing Billy Joel's pop standard "Piano Man" — not too well, it should be noted — from a bar stool, reportedly after a couple of drinks.
When he showed up for interviews Thursday morning, reporters surrounded the podium where he was supposed to sit. Roethlisberger eased his way through the crowd, scanning the gathering through the lens of a video camera that he carried around to chronicle his own version of events since stepping onto the tarmac at the airport in Dallas at the start of the week.
The first question thrown his way was whether it was "appropriate" to go out "with all the issues you've been through."
Roethlisberger explained it was a tradition.
"I take my linemen out to dinner ... and they get to pick. Usually it's a steakhouse or something. They wanted to go to a barbecue place this time. It was really good."
It briefly reignited the debate that raged in Pittsburgh for most of the summer and on into the fall about whether the Steelers, an organization revered for its decorum and good sense, should have dumped Roethlisberger. The conversation then shifted back to the same one that followed his return, whether playing well enough all season and winning a Super Bowl could somehow provide a measure of personal redemption.
It was a silly exercise to begin with. Only a lifetime of behaving well is going redeem his reputation and by the time he headed down a hallway and out into the night, nobody was much interested in the topic, at least for the moment. A backpack was slung over Roethlisberger's left shoulder and a pair of headphones dangled from his right hand. The video camera was nowhere to be found.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org