Ben Roethlisberger, hiding in plain sight

After the loss, the Steelers, wet with sweat and rain, stream into the tunnel of Heinz Field. Their faces register disgust, distress or disillusionment -- or all three -- as they file into the locker room following a 30-9 dismantling by Jacksonville. Le'Veon Bell locks his eyes on the floor, Martavis Bryant shakes his head, David DeCastro winces. Only one player enters with his helmet still on. You can't see his eyes. You can't read him at all.

Ben Roethlisberger prefers to stay hidden.

Sometimes he hides behind masks, other times behind doors. Most often, behind his words.

In the minutes following what was, perhaps, the worst outing in his 14 years in the league, he emerges from the shower and takes a seat in front of his locker. There's a purple bruise on his thigh. Another at the top of his back, below the spot where he had a Chinese symbol tattooed near his shoulder. Scratches, bright pink and fresh, bloom on his waist just above his towel -- new tokens of another NFL Sunday in a lifetime full of them.

He slips on a pair of dark jeans, straps an Apple Watch to his wrist, drops his keys into his pocket, and turns around to face the onslaught. Roethlisberger will try to make sense of his five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. He'll try to offer answers for why he threw 55 times but never once for six points. He'll try to explain how he became the first quarterback ever to manage that exact combination of futility in a single game.

"Somebody, please," he implores a mob of reporters that has tightened its ring around him, but not yet posed a question. At his prodding, though, the interrogation comes. And a moment later, the reckoning.

"Maybe I don't have it anymore," he says.

Roethlisberger is kidding, of course. What, him worry?

No, wait, he's serious. Here, in front of his locker, he's owning his mortality, a concession to that inevitable thief, time, and the way it robs even elite quarterbacks eventually. Like he owned it in January, when he publicly pondered retirement. Like he owned it in July when he grappled with how chronic traumatic encephalopathy ravages a football player's brain and, in the end, his body.

No, actually, he's glib. He's just frustrated, forced to forensically dissect the myriad ways he failed this Sunday afternoon, his flippancy morphing into self-flagellation. Because 30 seconds later, to the same mob of reporters and the same tightening ring, he rejects any notion of creeping self-doubt whatsoever. "If anybody in this room ever has that doubt, they probably aren't here," he says. "You know what I'm saying?"

And isn't that the rub of this 14-year journey? We don't know. The quarterback who has juked and shimmied and scrambled his way to a Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career is not just hard to catch on the field.

We are never quite sure what it is Ben Roethlisberger is actually, truly saying.

James Conner briefly mulled opening one of the doors Roethlisberger hides behind.

Multiple Super Bowl rings and a decade and a half in this town will buy you two lockers in Pittsburgh, and Roethlisberger's are nestled in the far corner amid a sea of rookies; his first, flush against one wall, his second, perpendicular to it on the other wall. At first blush, his first locker, light brown, littered with roughly eight pairs of assorted black and yellow and white cleats, appears fairly typical. But upon further inspection, the right wall of that locker is, in fact, a door. And on that door, hangs a hook. Resting on that hook is a black string. And when you pull that string, it swings the door open, like a portal that delivers would-be snoops to Roethlisberger's own private Narnia: a few square feet between the banks of lockers and the wall that serves as his quiet refuge from the locker room bustle. Conner, the Steelers' first-year running back, was the only person in the room one day, free from prying eyes and protective veterans, so all he needed was to quickly tug that string and all would be laid bare: the space that's only Roethlisberger's to know. Only Conner lost his nerve.

"I was gonna open it up," he says. "But I got too scared. Everybody knows not to go back there. It's top secret."

T.J. Watt is pretty sure there's a refrigerator in Roethlisberger's hidden enclave, maybe some speakers because he has heard music a time or two. JuJu Smith-Schuster didn't even know there was a room there until a month into this season, when he saw Roethlisberger emerge, phantom-like, from behind his locker. "Yo, where'd he come from?" he said to himself.

Roethlisberger is the team elder, his 14 years of reps in North Shore are more than Bell and Antonio Brown have tallied, combined. He won two Super Bowls in his first five seasons, then added a third appearance two years later. He has started more regular-season games than any other quarterback in Steelers history (191) and won more too (129). If anyone in this locker room has merited the right to seek barriers, to artfully dodge, it's Roethlisberger. But mostly, he's just not a young buck anymore. He prefers calm in his personal space: Smith-Schuster says the ground rules are no music and no roughhousing, which feels somewhat akin to the locker room equivalent of get off his lawn. (Not coincidentally, perhaps, the more boisterous Bell, who's prone to freestyling, is clear across the room.) It's why he surrounded himself with rookies in the first place, 50 feet removed from the real hub of activity -- the gold-felted pool table and yellow trash bin that doubles as a basketball hoop most fall afternoons. Smith-Schuster and Conner, Watt and Josh Dobbs, they're pups, so they'll keep the volume down. Or be too timid not to.

There are moments, even if they're fleeting, when Roethlisberger still looks young. On the Friday before he'll face Jacksonville, two days before he admits to or teases or wrestles with or denies his mortality, he spends the waning minutes of practice running goal-line plays at the Steelers' indoor facility, a gray colossus that could double as a warehouse. For a few minutes on a rainy afternoon, he's just a guy with a ball, playing with some neighborhood friends.

"Break!" he yells, 10 yards from the end zone, and Brown cuts to the far-right corner. Roethlisberger doesn't throw, but punts the ball with his left foot instead, and hits Brown in the numbers. They huddle and he screams break again, and this time Jesse James charges toward the center of the end zone. Roethlisberger punts the ball a second time, and again, launches a perfect spiral to the tight end. But even in his lighter moments, the specter of time closes in on him. Yes, he's strangely adept at punting. Yes, he's having fun. But yes, he's also not passing the ball, to save his aging arm for game day.

Roethlisberger is a relic in most every way, and he sounds it. "Everything is put out there," he laments of the way social media has infiltrated what was once a fortress. "Sometimes you lose the locker room tightness, the closeness, because there's so much tweeting and stuff I don't even know about."

And so Roethlisberger is a presence more than he is present in the locker room. He makes a quick exit on Fridays, his golfing days. ("Tee time?" his center Maurkice Pouncey yells at him as he heads out. "Man, he's going to Oakmont.") He finds escape the rest of the week too, rarely lingering in the locker room. He has a family to get home to now, for one, a wife and three young children. And the guys he came up with, his guys, are gone, for another. "There's no more Heath Miller," says Willie Colon, Ben Roethlisberger's old right tackle. "There's no more Brett Keisel. There's no more me."

Like any seasoned quarterback worth his salt, Roethlisberger dotes on his offensive line. Alejandro Villanueva, the unit's relative newcomer, marvels at how often Roethlisberger takes up residence in the line's meeting room, at just how much of Villanueva's film Roethlisberger will pore over. And Pouncey, who has lined up at center for nearly every Roethlisberger start since 2010, save for one injury-sidelined season, insists he'll go full "you jump, I jump" if and when Roethlisberger calls it a career.

Still, the calculus for the locker room at large remains a simple one: Let Ben be Ben.

He's not chatty, especially with the younger guys. ("Rookie year, you know, he didn't talk to me at first," Martavis Bryant says. "Like he does with most people. Rookies can't feel no type of way about it. They can't expect him to just come up and talk. You've got to prove yourself.") He'll engage, but on his own terms in and in his own time. "Us playing this game right here," says wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, gesturing to the 10 or 12 Steelers lobbing a basketball at that yellow trash can from 15 feet out, "he gets involved sometimes. But then other days, I wouldn't mess with him with that."

Even Todd Haley, Pittsburgh's six-year offensive coordinator, has mastered the art of giving Ben his space. "I've learned pretty quickly that, within the game, when a series ends, leave him alone," he says. "Some guys want to communicate right away. He's just a quiet, calm guy within the game."

The net sum of his tendencies to retreat inward is that Roethlisberger is as much a notion of a teammate as he is a living, breathing one. On the second day of rookie minicamp in May, the QB ball boy nudged Dobbs and motioned to a plane circling low overhead.

"You know who that is, don't you?" the ball boy asked Roethlisberger's newest understudy. "It's Ben up there."

Two months into the season, he isn't exactly Ben Roethlisberger, the swoon-worthy quarterback many of these guys, and the rookies especially, grew up watching. He's their quarterback now, and that much, at least, feels more normal for them. But in ways both big and small, Roethlisberger will always be that guy hovering above, removed, at a distance.

Roethlisberger leaves a trail of breadcrumbs, clues to a life lived mostly outside the confines of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. The collection of photos that line his locker, and line that secret door, of Ben Jr., now 5, on a jet ski, of his daughter waving to the camera, showing off what looks to be freshly painted nails. A dark fishing hat dangling from a hook. A black binder on the floor with a printout on its cover that reads, "God, I don't even know all the abilities I've got, but I thank you for them."

This curated version -- the doting father, the outdoorsman, the man of faith -- undergirds the other barrier Roethlisberger has constructed by way of self-preservation: the wall between then and now.

"I'd be the first to admit I wasn't a good teammate early in my career," Roethlisberger said just two years ago. He clashed with longtime Steelers, icons like Joey Porter and Hines Ward. He was neither humble nor hesitant to wield the entitlement that insta-success in the NFL afforded him. His litany of transgressions ranged from mildly problematic -- he was reportedly a fixture in the Pittsburgh bar scene -- to dangerously cavalier. In 2006, despite then-Steelers coach Bill Cowher's pleas, he rode his motorcycle without a helmet, wrecked it, and broke his nose and jaw, while sustaining a 9-inch laceration to the back of his head.

Then, the nadir.

Roethlisberger will not discuss the two accusations of rape levied against him, the first, in a civil suit from 2009, which resulted in his countersuing and reaching a settlement three years later; the second, in 2010, which, due to some combination of lack of evidence and desire on the prosecutor's part to pursue, never amounted to legal charges. The subject is a nonstarter, for Roethlisberger, who denied the allegations outright years ago, and for those in Roethlisberger's orbit. They'll offer oblique euphemisms -- "the trouble he had," "his past" -- then pivot to the ways they see Roethlisberger is different now, is mature, is past that past.

Is he? We're left to take his surrogates' word for it, or those breadcrumbs.

This much, at least, is not a mystery: Since 2004, Roethlisberger's blend of backyard-brawl recklessness with sure-handed finesse entrenches him firmly in the Brady-Rodgers all-galaxy football universe. He remains there, even in the throes of a trying 2017, and not simply because he believes so, though he does. "Gunfighters are gonna get shot too," he shrugs, 24 hours removed from his five-interception calamity. "And you know what? You just gotta go out and sling it and know that, hey, I'm one of the best in the world at what I do."

The league thinks so too, says Mike Giddings, president of Proscout Inc., a scouting and consulting service that has evaluated NFL players since 1977 and offers its counsel to eight to 15 pro teams, at any given time. "If Ben Roethlisberger was available for the rest of the year, I'm pretty sure 20 teams would say, 'We'll take him.'"

So when, this past January, fresh off an AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots, Roethlisberger said he'd take the offseason to evaluate next season -- "if there's gonna be a next season" -- Pittsburgh gulped. And when, six months later, he didn't backpedal but doubled down, Pittsburgh swooned. He didn't just admit retirement was on his mind, after all. He divulged why. Roethlisberger, the gritty, play-through-the-injury-kitchen-sink grinder, was considering his body, and his quality of life, and, yes, CTE. He went out, said his piece, and then everyone else went to pieces.

"People were giving me grief. Like, 'Is he going to do this every year just so he can have a farewell summer?'" he says. "No, that's not what it's about."

So what was it about, then?

"Being able to play catch with my kids. As my wife says, 'knowing my kids in the future,'" he says. "Brain trauma, things like that. Waking up in the morning with my knees aching, shoulders aching."

Whether it was the content of his message -- the way he just embraced his vulnerability for all the world to see -- or the messenger himself, his proclamation only seemed to bear out the long-standing Roethlisberger narrative.

"I know I've been labeled this drama king," he says.

Yes, he knows. He grasps the plot line: Whether he courts drama or drama courts him, Roethlisberger has lived a 14-year black-and-yellow soap opera in Pittsburgh. He does not, however, lend credence to it. "I was just being honest. Speaking my truth," he says. "I don't just say things to say 'em."

Former opponents and former opposing coaches have said Roethlisberger will let you know when he's injured; that way you'll know he's playing through those injuries. He counters that there are even more injuries that were never disclosed in the first place. "I know what I've played through. I've got one of the thickest files in their medical records." Former teammates have said he throws his current teammates under the proverbial bus. Even if publicly reprimanding a fellow player was a ploy he bristled at himself as a younger, brasher man, he maintains that calling out Antonio Brown for his Week 4 Gatorade-cooler-tossing tantrum was his obligation, plain and simple. "I'm used to those kinds of flare-ups. There was some extra kind of stuff that happened this time."

Roethlisberger insists that no tension, or resentment, or frustration lingers between him and any of his teammates. Or didn't you see the framed photo hanging outside Brown's locker of the beaming wide receiver-quarterback combo, signed by the QB himself: "AB: We are unstoppable! -Ben Roethlisberger 7." And despite sporadic rumblings to the contrary, the players, by and large, play nice. They gush they've never seen another leader like him. They maintain true leaders don't balk at sparking a little bit of conflict.

"I don't know how much I have left," he says. "So, for me, I'm not trying to be out here to make best friends. I'm trying to win football games. I'm trying to win championships."

And so even if his declaration on retirement did (or does) introduce uncertainty -- though, to a man, the Steelers insist it did not because it's his choice and his choice alone to make -- he'd sleep just fine at night. Before he considered retirement publicly, he might've warned Pouncey, his closest friend on the team. He can't recall specifically, but he does know for sure that he wasn't worried about how the news of his retirement-pondering exercise would be received.

"I didn't think about it. It didn't occur to me because, honestly, my family is more important than football," he says. "And I love these guys. They know that. But everyone in here, I hope, would say their family is more important than football."

He's measured, thoughtful, even, about how he chose his words in January, and again in July. And the Steelers' ongoing success -- at 6-2, they lead the AFC North by two games at the season's midway point -- isn't making his outlook any clearer. He remains unapologetic when it comes to his uncertain future.

"I definitely am contemplating and will continue to do that," he says.

And so one day, this season or the next, or the one after that, Roethlisberger will suit up as No. 7 for the last time. He'll run through the Heinz Field tunnel after the game is finished, and he won't come back out -- not as a player, anyway. Will anyone know?

"My family. Maybe a teammate or two," he says.

The fans? The city? Once more, Roethlisberger is impossible to pin down.

"I don't know," he says. "It may be something where I know it's my last season and I can say, 'This is it. This is my last game and I'm done.'

"I just don't know yet."