Roethlisberger still dealing with the road less taken

PITTSBURGH -- The long way twists under steel bridges and grinding engines, with darkness and pokes of sunlight, water and the cluttered madness of downtown Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger doesn't know why he steers his motorcycle this way. He rarely takes the long route. But he's young, the temperature is 62 degrees on a summer morning, and he isn't in a hurry.

The workout he's headed to at the Steelers' practice facility is voluntary. The Chunky Soup commercial he's supposed to do is light and breezy.

The helmet he wants to wear is being painted to match his shiny Suzuki Hayabusa.

There are a hundred little things to do, and two ways to take. One would have him at 3400 South Water Street for another not-so-mundane day in the life of Ben Roethlisberger. The other has him sprawled out on the concrete during the lunch rush in a puddle of oil and blood.

"I don't say it was fate," Roethlisberger says. "I say it's God's plan."

It was an accident. Two opposite lives converging on Second Avenue near the 10th Street Bridge. A 24-year-old Super Bowl quarterback -- a town hero on his bike -- and a 62-year-old woman, a sudden and unwitting anti-hero in a gray turtleneck and a silver Chrysler New Yorker.

Eleven months later, you still don't know exactly where Martha Fleishman was going. Her car was headed into the city, away from her quiet brick home, away from anonymity. Within hours, her name would be plastered all over the national media, then the world.

"I would've thought she'd be placed in the witness protection program," Joshua MacAran says as he serves the post-lunch stragglers at a bagel shop recently in Fleishman's neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. "People were so angry at her.

"I literally remember a couple of my friends saying if they met her, they'd beat her up."

Two lives forever intersected, both still shouldering the blame. They blame Fleishman for failing to yield, Roethlisberger for not wearing a helmet, the crash for ruining the 2006 Steelers season. Hear the name Martha in Pittsburgh, and it's bound to elicit sneers and conjure up images of a little old lady who couldn't obey a yield sign. See Ben throw an interception, and critics whisper he's not the same, all because of that accident.

Had each taken a different route, left a few minutes earlier, lingered a few seconds longer, would it have mattered?

The text message envelope on Ryan Tollner's cell phone popped up in the early-morning West Coast hours of June 12. It was Roethlisberger, and he was getting antsy. He'd done interviews all morning and still had more talking to do. He was stuck in his Pittsburgh townhouse and told his agent he was itching to move.

If there is a temptation for young quarterbacks with Paul Bunyan looks and a Super Bowl ring to get swallowed up in the distractions, Roethlisberger was doing his best to avoid it. He planned to trim down from his 241-pound frame and already had changed his diet. He had a fairly strict bedtime, often getting to sleep by 11 p.m..

But then there was that bike, that 170-horsepower monster named after a Japanese bird of prey. The Hayabusa is big and fast and can reach speeds of up to 189 mph. Detractors called it part of a young man's reckless streak.

Roethlisberger saw it as a release.

"I like the sense of freedom," he says. "It's like you're free to forget everything."

Sun turned to clouds when Roethlisberger left his house and headed to the Steelers' workout facility the morning of June 12. The Hayabusa purred along at about 35 mph as it approached the Armstrong Tunnel.

Everybody in Pittsburgh has a story of where they were when Roethlisberger crashed. It's like the modern-day Kennedy assassination, minus the grassy knoll.

Kenny Holtzman took the day off from work and was painting his windows; 11-year-old Jake Stewart was at the mall. Then everybody was in front of their televisions.

"Mother------ shouldn't have been riding a motorcycle," was the first thing that went through Holtzman's head as text messages between buddies were passed saying, BEN'S DOWN. "It is his own life, but when his career is over he can do stuff like that."

Tollner, Roethlisberger's agent, had just arrived in Denver for a connecting flight when he turned on his phone. He had 21 voice mails. Before he could check them, the phone rang again. "Accident" and "life-threatening" were the only words he actually heard.

It happened about 11:15 a.m., between two green lights. Fleishman was trying to turn onto the bridge after the arrow. Roethlisberger was heading east, with the Monongahela River on his right. The 3,587-pound New Yorker collided with Roethlisberger's 500-pound Hayabusa, and Roethlisberger was thrown from the motorcycle and smashed into Fleishman's windshield on the passenger side. His head hit the top of the car, he rolled off the hood, fell on his knees and hit his head again on the pavement.

An eyewitness told reporters who eventually swarmed on the scene that Roethlisberger was conscious and that he asked where he was.


He tried to get up. With Roethlisberger's head bleeding and his eyes glazed over, most of the onlookers didn't know that that man lying in the street was their quarterback.

Nobody knew Fleishman, whose face was awash with concern as a local photographer clicked a shot of her with one hand on her ear, the other pressed to her cell phone.

Two time zones away, Tollner was glued to his phone, but he didn't know much. Roethlisberger was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital with serious head and facial injuries. Then Tollner had to shut off his phone and sit through a three-hour flight to Pittsburgh, not knowing whether his friend was alive or dead.

"I was not expecting that he was going to play again," he says. "And you know what? It was completely irrelevant. Ben is someone I'm very close to. Whether or not he was going to play again was the last thing on my mind."

A phone call from the emergency room jolted a typical Monday summer afternoon for Dr. Harry Sell.

"It's starting to get a little bit wild over here," the caller said.

Sell is the chairman of the department of surgery at Mercy Hospital, sort of the quarterback of the operating room on June 12. A trauma alert went out about noon that day when a big, athletic type was wheeled into the emergency room. It was the same protocol that always is followed. What happened after that was anything but textbook.

Cameras swarmed, phones jangled and reporters tried to sneak into the waiting area. Everybody had a friend of a friend who was a doctor or an orderly who potentially could provide a morsel of information. Nothing, really, was getting out.

Roethlisberger underwent seven hours of surgery to repair facial fractures, and the gathering outside kept growing. News trucks cluttered the parking lot. Tailgaters set up hibachis and kept late-night vigil.

The rumors stretched all the way back to Second Avenue, but Roethlisberger's family, which rushed in from Findlay, Ohio, wanted to keep those first hours private. The silence was maddening.

"My wife was at home," Sell says, "and she called me and paged me. She said, 'You know, you need to go and tell them something because they're not sure if he's alive or not.'

"Because it had been a long time, they thought there must be something horrifically wrong with him."

They held a news conference at the hospital when the surgery was over.

"Awake and alert and improving," they said. Some later information was even more soothing to Steelers fans.

"No evidence of any structural damage to either of his knees."

Doctors aren't always used to being celebrities, but in the hours after June 12, Sell had everything from his hometown paper calling for an exclusive to an 8-year-old girl who sought out his autograph.

He understands the town's reaction. He is incredulous when asked whether he's a Steelers fan.

"In Pittsburgh? How can you not be?" he says.

The first public sight of Roethlisberger at the ESPYS in July was just how he choreographed it -- smiling and perfectly coifed, in a sharp pinstripe suit, seemingly unaffected. Roethlisberger doesn't like to show signs of weakness, and he certainly didn't want to reveal his battered face.

He had slipped out of Mercy Hospital in the late-night hours of June 14, through a back door, past the cameras that temporarily were pointed elsewhere. It was quite a coup, Tollner later jokes. They waited until the TVs had their nightly shots before escaping.

But the truth was there, staring back at Roethlisberger. The second night in the hospital, tired of "peeing in a bottle or whatever you call it," he unhooked the wires and limped to the bathroom. The light came on, and Roethlisberger saw himself in the mirror.

"My face was swollen all over," he says. "I was black and blue and didn't have teeth. I just wondered if I'd ever be the same again.

"People don't realize how bad it was, how close I was to dying. The last pictures they saw were me winning the Super Bowl, [then] me at the ESPYS."

There were visible and not-so-visible differences. He dropped 25 pounds in a couple of weeks. He had five titanium plates securing his face.

Roethlisberger's sister took one picture of him at his worst, then somehow deleted it by accident. But anybody who sat with him at Mercy Hospital has a mental snapshot that can't be erased.

"He was basically unrecognizable," Tollner says, then pauses.

He doesn't elaborate.

So, off they went in the night on June 14, past the trucks and the tailgaters, and back to Roethlisberger's townhouse. They covered the windows, made smoothies and recuperated. In Squirrel Hill, there was a similar cloistered existence.

One of Fleishman's neighbors, who wished not to be named, said the family kept its lights off at night for maybe a week, warding away the media, the gawkers, the freaks.

Fleishman didn't suffer any major physical damage June 12. The pain came after that. Within hours of the accident, her address, phone number and a picture of her house were posted on a Steelers message board. Fans spotted her Maine plates and labeled her a Patriots fan bent on taking out the competition. She was mentioned in German and Spanish news reports.

Sometime after receiving death threats, she filed a police report in Pittsburgh.

It was a simple crash, said Officer Dan Connolly, who investigated the collision and wrapped up the paperwork within a week. Basic. Fleishman was cited for failing to yield; Roethlisberger was ticketed for driving without a valid motorcycle license and for not wearing a helmet.

Had Fleishman run into anybody else in Pittsburgh, it probably wouldn't have merited more than a paragraph or two in the paper and a phone call from her insurance agent.

"Did [the death threats] surprise me? You've got to remember I'm a policeman," Connolly says. "I've seen a lot of goofy stuff. Sometimes, fans get out of control. [The Steelers] are like heroes to these people. When something happens, they go above and beyond."

The first time Mark Whipple saw Roethlisberger after the accident, he cried.

Whipple was the Steelers' quarterbacks coach, and he saw Roethlisberger go from wobbly rook to the confetti party in Detroit. Then again, Roethlisberger never seemed wobbly in those first two years. He led the Steelers to a 27-4 record and two AFC championship games. He embraced the town's blue-collar mentality and the demanding expectations on the quarterback.

Whipple and Roethlisberger had this saying: In society, more people like to point the finger than (raise) the thumb.

And that was OK.

The morning of June 12, Whipple was driving down Bell Road in southern Arizona, getting ready to take his family to the Grand Canyon, when he heard news of Roethlisberger's crash. It took about a month before they saw each other again, at the Steelers' workout facility, and Roethlisberger was throwing and smiling.

They hugged; Whipple cried.

"He'd lost so much weight," Whipple says. "He said, 'I'm just tired.'

"Anytime when something like that happens, and it's time to see somebody you care about, it's a special moment."

Roethlisberger grew up in a house that didn't make excuses, and that meant he had to be ready for the season opener against the Dolphins. He swam laps after each workout in training camp.

He played better in the preseason than he did in 2005. It didn't make sense, but he comes from a family of fast healers. Then, days before the first game, Roethlisberger fell ill before practice. He had an emergency appendectomy and sat for Week 1.

It was an ominous precursor to a season Steelers fans say was doomed from June 12. Roethlisberger threw 23 interceptions and had a 75.4 passer rating and a 7-8 record. He suffered a concussion against the Falcons. All season, his quick returns after each medical issue left questions that lingered.

Was it the concussion? The sore abdomen? The head, the knees, the face, the elbows?

"There are no excuses for anything," Roethlisberger says. "You live up and own up to the things to do. I'm going to own up to not playing well last year. That's just the way it is."

With the team's playoff hopes gone, Whipple told Roethlisberger to play the season finale on New Year's Eve as if it was the start of next season. The Steelers beat the Bengals on the road in overtime, knocking them out of the playoffs.

Roethlisberger threw for 280 yards and appeared to be back. Whipple was out of a job within a few months after head coach Bill Cowher retired.

The silver-haired woman who answers the door on a warm spring day is wearing headphones around her neck and nearly a year's worth of suffering in her heart. Fleishman won't tell you that, that the calls and the threats got to her, that she rues the day she climbed into her New Yorker and suddenly became forever attached to possibly the most famous person in Pittsburgh.

She won't tell you why she never changed her number -- because if she did that it meant the zealots and the superfans won. Call her house and you'll get a cheery greeting saying Martha and Marty will get back to you.

They will, of course, unless you want to talk about the crash.

"She's very strong," a neighbor says. "A very good friend. Just a wonderful person.

"I don't think she was terribly afraid. She's not that kind of person."

She makes bread for her neighbors and works food drives for the poor and dotes over her garden. She donates money to the Parkinson Chapter of Greater Pittsburgh, and once did a presentation on "Having Fun in the Classroom with Recyclables."

She's always doing something for somebody, the friend says.

The Squirrel Hill neighborhood is mostly Jewish, mostly quiet. Outside, cars with Steelers flags crawl by boys wearing yarmulkes walking home from school. Everyone, it seems, moves fast and with a purpose.

Louis Mariano has run a barbershop up on Murray Avenue since 8-tracks were cutting edge, and the only trouble he has ever run into is graffiti. Mariano has never met Fleishman, but he -- like everyone else in Pittsburgh -- has heard of her.

"That poor woman," he says as he looks out the window.

Fleishman's family has lived in the 2 1/2-story home made of brick and stone for 16 years, long enough to expose any nonhermit to black-and-gold mania. Her husband, Marty, is board certified in psychiatry. She travels a lot, a friend says, and heads out to a home in Farmington, Maine, in the summer. There, her world got even smaller last year.

"They bothered her there, too," the neighbor says. "Foolish people, obviously."

You don't know where she was going, so it's hard to know where the past 11 months have taken her. There was the fan on the message board who suggested putting a bomb in Fleishman's mailbox. Another implored some Internet lurkers to exact justice through a deathly beating.

But Fleishman is still here, up Interstate 376 in the tree-lined neighborhood that is so far from Roethlisberger's existence. She answers the door about suppertime, stands near the top of the steps. Her eyes are wide, but turn tired and sad when she's asked about the crash. She'll linger for a few minutes to talk -- about anything but that. Fleishman mentions something in passing about working with kids. A neighbor thinks Fleishman was a teacher at one point.

"I'm hoping as time passes," Fleishman says, "it'll get better."

She turns to the door and says goodbye.

Eleven months, and Roethlisberger has yet to get back on a motorcycle. He rolls his eyes when people want to talk about the accident.

He bristles at the notion that he's a risk taker. Who isn't at 25?

"My life is very planned, I think," he says. "Everybody has a little risk taker in them, some more than others. I enjoy my life. I'm a young guy … and I have the opportunity to do things that a lot of people don't get to do."

Like play football. And get a second chance.

"I don't think he still understands how serious this was," says a person who witnessed the scene on June 12.

Roethlisberger says he does. His face is fixed, his body is healed, but in some ways, he's not the same.

When he awoke in the hospital, and had his first coherent thought, Roethlisberger said the overwhelming feeling was guilt. He felt bad for making his family rush 250 miles from Findlay, bad for the Steelers and the fans, worse for those who spent the day wondering whether he'd live or die.

He eventually felt sorry for Fleishman.

"I don't want them to blame her for this," he says.

It was an accident.

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.