American Football: Penny drops as Big Ben finally grows up

After sex assault allegations and a horror motorbike crash, the Steelers quarterback lines up in tonight's Super Bowl as a 'changed man'

In the Super Bowl more than any other game, the focus is usually on the two quarterbacks. The scrum around them on Media Day is the thickest, and their pivotal position as their teams' offensive generals guarantees more pressure and scrutiny on them than any other player.

That has been true in Dallas in the build-up to Super Bowl XLV here tonight, but while the talk surrounding Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers has been of his part in one of the most exciting offenses in the NFL, Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers has faced questioning about a darker subject.

This should have been the week in which the 28-year-old could contemplate winning a third Super Bowl ring, which would put him in the exalted company of other three-time winners such as Troy Aikman of Dallas Cowboys and Tom Brady of New England Patriots.

Instead, the subtext of repeated press queries has been his behaviour on a night out in Milledgeville, Georgia, last March, which resulted in allegations of sexual assault against Roethlisberger from a 20-year-old student. In the end, charges were not brought, but the court documents – made public under Georgia law – provided ugly reading and the NFL suspended him for the first six games of this season, later reduced to four, under their personal conduct policy.

The fact that he had faced similar allegations once before, in 2008, did not help to elicit sympathy for a player who had seldom gone out of his way to make himself loved by the media, or many other people for that matter – including his team-mates.

His feeling that he was a law unto himself almost cost Roethlisberger his life in 2006 when he narrowly escaped death in a motorcycle accident while not wearing a helmet. But in the last 11 months, the penny seems to have dropped for Big Ben – so much so that he won an award for media co-operation from the Pittsburgh press, which amazed even him. "It meant a lot to me," he said. "I know that they're doing their job. I can't take things personally that they say and write. I just wanted them to know that I apologise to them for ever being difficult to work with."

Although it has been noted that he has not directly addressed what did or did not happen in March, he has reached out in other directions to repair damaged relationships. "There were a couple [of players] that I was not as close to as I wanted and needed to be, and I worked hard to be a better team-mate," he said. "I've had a lot of apologising to do. I had to apologise to the Rooneys [the Steelers owners], I had to apologise to the fans. I wasn't always the nicest guy. I admit that. I feel like I've grown up a lot."

This week, some reporters have asked the quarterback whether leading the Steelers to a third Super Bowl title since 2006 would be an act of redemption, but it was arguably the most convincing sign of Roethlisberger's new self-awareness that he had rejected such a facile interpretation in a recent interview.

"I used to tell my Dad and my closest friends: 'If I can win a Super Bowl or two or three, nobody can say anything to me, I can do anything I want.' That's stupid, I know that now. That's what I mean about growing up. I realise now that I can use the platform I have for something good. It would be amazing to win another Super Bowl, but it won't be like I'll say: 'Do you forgive me now?' It'll be a step in earning back everything I've lost."

Action Packers: Where tonight's game could be won and lost...

Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay quarterback, had a thankless task in succeeding Packers legend Brett Favre three seasons ago, but has since made an attacking, five-receiver offence his own, with Greg Jennings his favourite target. His main problem could be the presence in the Pittsburgh secondary of Troy Polamalu, the strong safety who was voted this season's Defensive Player of the Year, and who has the anticipation and mobility to intercept the best-aimed of passes.

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh's quarterback, could find his biggest obstacle much closer to him – uncomfortably so. B J Raji, Green Bay's man-mountain nose-tackle nicknamed "The Freezer", will aim to punch a hole in the offensive line for Clay Matthews, the long-haired linebacker, to get into his face. It will not harm Raji's chances that centre Maurkice Pouncey is ruled out with an ankle injury, and his understudy Doug Legursky has started only four games in two seasons. But the Steelers have plenty of offensive weapons, including an arsenal of trick plays, and wide receiver Hines Ward is a proven big-game performer. If Roethlisberger can get the ball anywhere near him, Ward usually does the rest.

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