After devouring a steamy slop bucket of seafood, red potatoes and corn, Ben Roethlisberger gathered his skill players by his rectangular pool overlooking Lake Oconee.
It was a late evening in mid-May, and just about every skill-position player was in attendance at Roethlisberger's Georgia lake house, from Pro Bowlers to the practice squad: James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, James Washington, Donte Moncrief, Ryan Switzer, Eli Rogers, Xavier Grimble, Trey Griffey and Tevin Jones. They marveled at the perks, including private-jet transportation, lodging, water sports and throwing sessions, all organized and paid for by Roethlisberger, who issued a group text a month before telling teammates to pack their bags.
"It was honestly amazing," Griffey says.
Under a near-full moon, Roethlisberger and teammates formed a circle and shared their life stories, starting with Conner. Washington says the players took an oath not to disclose what they heard, but he says the moment "took the edge off" after a turbulent season in which the Steelers missed the playoffs and lost two veteran game-changing talents, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Throughout his career, Roethlisberger has been criticized for keeping teammates at a distance -- something that Brown had voiced repeatedly over the previous few months. This trip provided his teammates with perhaps the most outreach of Roethlisberger's entire Pittsburgh career.
Eventually, Smith-Schuster interjected.
"Seven, tell us your thing," he said. Roethlisberger warned that his story would take a while. He started to talk, and questions followed -- about everything from his football journey to his relationship with late owner Dan Rooney to why he doesn't allow music in the locker room.
Roethlisberger told ESPN he "shed a little bit of a tear," which multiple teammates confirm, though he kept with the company line and declined to divulge details of his story.
"It was very eye-opening," says Roethlisberger, 37, who had not hosted skill players at the lake house since 2015. "They were glued on me, listening. I think it was a little bit of amazement, a bit of craziness, just everything involved."
As Roethlisberger settles into his late-career arc, he's working to change the perception of his leadership. In interviews with more than 25 people, including current and former teammates and sources around the organization and quarterback, no one questions that Roethlisberger has kept the Steelers a perpetual winner. But in the aftermath of the Steelers' bumpy 2018 season and the disastrous 33-3 season-opening loss to the Patriots, his oft-discussed influence inside the building and in the locker room has never been more scrutinized.
If the Steelers right the ship and become a playoff team, Roethlisberger's ability to rally a revamped offensive roster might be the single biggest key to the year.
Former Steelers safety Ryan Clark -- who has never been shy about criticizing Roethlisberger -- believes that some parts of leadership are inherent and rare: caring about the team more than yourself, needing to protect those inside the locker room at all costs.
"When you get around those people, you just know," says Clark, who was with the team from 2006 to 2013 and is now an ESPN analyst. "For whatever reason, [Roethlisberger's] not like that. The leadership part hasn't come naturally. But I believe that he's trying. He's trying really hard to be a leader."
A topic discussed very little at the lake house, according to Roethlisberger, was the Steelers' bitter divorce from Brown, their All-Pro wide receiver, and the subsequent public shots Roethlisberger took from Brown and other ex-teammates for months.
Brown and Roethlisberger were never best friends, by any stretch, but teammates describe a solid and successful partnership during a run in which Brown had six consecutive 100-catch seasons. Brown used to beam when he'd get an offseason text from Roethlisberger hyping what a big season he saw for his favorite target.
By the end of 2018, Brown felt he had become a scapegoat for the Steelers' struggles, but he also had a well-documented penchant for showing up late to meetings and working off his own set of rules. All of which sounded familiar last week when Brown sabotaged his $30 million in guarantees from the Oakland Raiders by skipping work, threatening the general manager, demanding a release and then signing with the New England Patriots shortly after.
Roethlisberger often tempered some of Brown's outbursts behind the scenes, one Steelers starter says.
"Ben's had to deal with AB's antics for a long time," says a separate NFL source with knowledge of the situation. "It got out of hand."
As one former Steeler recalls, the yearslong tension between the two made players feel they had to pick a side: the calm-but-corporate Roethlisberger or the genuine-yet-chaotic Brown. Internally, Brown had become more vocal about his issues with the quarterback, whose position and tenure gave him the edge in any power struggle.
Roethlisberger flexed that power on his radio show after a Week 12 loss to Denver, criticizing Brown's route running in the end zone and expressing regret for not throwing to Smith-Schuster instead of Brown on the final series. Roethlisberger later apologized for the comments.
But what really set everything off was Brown's explosive tweet in February, a month before the receiver was traded to Oakland, in which he said that Roethlisberger's "owner mentality" allows him to call out anyone without repercussions and that those who question his influence might lose their "meal ticket."
Bell's relationship with Roethlisberger wasn't as complicated. Roethlisberger never bashed Bell in their five years together, and teammates weren't aware of any issues.
But after Bell signed with the New York Jets, he told ESPN that Brown's words "had a lot of truth to [them]" and, in an interview with Sports Illustrated, called the quarterback a factor in his leaving the Steelers.
Asked recently about the star players taking swings on the way out, Roethlisberger says he's focused solely on the opinions of current teammates -- and he has kept receipts from relationships with those who have left too.
"It's funny," Roethlisberger says. "If I were to put the texts and the messages out that I shared with some of those guys, I think everyone would be a little confused where [the criticisms] came from."
Roethlisberger doesn't speak to Bell's or Brown's comments directly, but he says the support in his current locker room is strong.
"A lot of guys know the truth," Roethlisberger says. "I think there was a lot of false [info] put out there. There's a little bit of talk about it, but [teammates] understood."
Pressed about what that truth is, Roethlisberger adds, "I know it. They know it. The guys here know it, and that's all that matters."
Regardless of the truth about how those relationships soured, the truth about the Steelers' fate is undeniable: Two dynamic cornerstone talents in their primes are gone, and the near-term future of the franchise rests largely on the shoulders of a 37-year-old quarterback.
The questions surrounding Roethlisberger's legacy have never been about statistics or wins -- few quarterbacks have produced more, and Roethlisberger's toughness has become NFL folklore. He's never had a losing season in 15 years. He's among a group of 12 franchise quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl wins. He's top-seven in career completions, yards and touchdowns. Instead, the question that has followed Roethlisberger through his career, particularly in the wake of his early-career off-field missteps (two separate sexual assault allegations and a four-game personal conduct suspension): Has he alienated himself in his own locker room?
One Steelers veteran with quality starting experience told ESPN he has virtually no relationship with the quarterback. Another player, former Steelers running back Josh Harris, said the veteran leaders who guided him during his time in Pittsburgh in 2014 were Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller and William Gay -- not Roethlisberger. He says the first time he spoke with his quarterback at length was more than a month after he joined the 53-man roster from the practice squad -- in preparation for the playoffs, after Bell got hurt in Week 17.
"That's where it kind of rubs people the wrong way," Harris says. "When you come out and [criticize a teammate] and there is no preexisting relationship, [it's harder to] say, 'OK, he's saying this because he wants me to be a better player.'"
When asked about relating to teammates, Roethlisberger says he plans to do better. The lake house trip for the Steelers skill players was just one step. The quarterback also invited defensive leaders Cam Heyward and Vince Williams to his house for dinner and asked how he could be more approachable.
After six years of playing with him, Williams says he thinks of Roethlisberger as a good teammate -- but he knows others, particularly the younger players on the Steelers, might not understand.
"The leadership part hasn't come naturally." Former Steeler Ryan Clark
"It's on him to find ways to be more relatable," Williams says. "I wouldn't say [teammates] are starstruck, but the legend of Ben is bigger than who he really is, so it's hard to be approachable to him. I told him, 'You've got to initiate that.'"
This offseason, many teammates said Roethlisberger was just that: a regular, approachable guy who helps them improve. Tight end McDonald considers him an "excellent teammate" who encourages more than ever. Williams has noticed more of an effort as well, with the quarterback telling teammates his locker is always open. Players approach him for everything from autographs for family members to relationship advice, Roethlisberger says.
Many of Roethlisberger's kindest gestures go unnoticed, says former teammate Trai Essex, who cites multiple phone calls of encouragement when Essex was released and re-signed by the team in 2011. Roethlisberger recently provided a PNC Park suite for guard Ramon Foster and his family to enjoy a Pirates game. During the game, Foster jokingly texted Roethlisberger that he's a bad teammate.
To bridge the gap with players nearly half his age, Roethlisberger tries to relate by asking about interests, such as Fortnite. "They like that the old man asks a lot of questions," Roethlisberger says with a laugh.
Tevin Jones, 26, in his second year on the Steelers' practice squad, once thought Roethlisberger's icy perception might be real, but he says he feels more comfortable after talks at the lake house -- "seeing it through his eyes, seeing how people come in and out [of the locker room]."
Big Ben opens up about Steelers' belief in him, Luck's retirement
Ben Roethlisberger talks about the Steelers' belief in his leadership skills and shares his reaction to Andrew Luck's retirement.
After 15 years, the Steelers quarterback has seen a lot of people come in and out of the locker room. And as the longest-tenured Steeler and face of the franchise, he holds a certain amount of power ... even when it comes to the most casual benefits.
Back in 2015, linebacker Bud Dupree didn't think much of the "RedHawks Only" sign in front of a parking space he occupied on a random workday -- the rookie thought all spots at the Steelers' practice facility were for the taking.
He found out differently, courtesy of a certain Miami (Ohio) alum.
"Whose white truck is that?" Dupree recalls Roethlisberger asking from inside the training room.
"Mine," responded Dupree, who noticed that teammates started laughing.
"That's my spot," Roethlisberger said.
Dupree didn't move his car ... but he also didn't park there again. The spot is a fairly harmless perk for the quarterback -- former Pitt coach Paul Chryst put up the sign years ago as an inside joke.
But it's also symbolic of an uphill battle Roethlisberger will have to fight this year -- that he has an outsize presence within the organization.
Brown was the first to publicly place the label on his former quarterback, but he's not the only one: A current Steeler casually referred to Roethlisberger as "the owner" when discussing him.
Roethlisberger isn't apologetic for his place on the team -- "I've been here a lot longer than most guys," he says -- and says he takes his leadership role seriously. One source said the idea that Roethlisberger casts a pall over team decision-making is untrue.
Regardless, the perception remains -- and quarterbacking the Steelers does have its benefits.
Mike Tomlin's weekly film reviews are designed to excoriate just about every player, but one former Steeler says he can't remember Big Ben ever getting peppered in those sessions. Another veteran agrees that Tomlin doesn't criticize his quarterback as sternly as other players, though he adds that he's seen Tomlin occasionally blame Roethlisberger for a bad throw. (Of course, the player is quick to add: The quarterback also isn't making too many mistakes on the field.)
When asked this offseason about managing star players, Tomlin said that he treats all his players fairly but that he doesn't "aspire to treat everyone exactly the same."
That's certainly true when it comes to practice time. Multiple recent Steelers who also have played for other starting quarterbacks cite their surprise with Roethlisberger's penchant for taking days off from practice. Roethlisberger is known to use in-season Wednesdays as rest days, as well as occasional days during training camp.
This is Tomlin's call. He's known to give veterans rest, especially a quarterback who has been sacked 501 times, tops among active QBs. Roethlisberger often sits with center Maurkice Pouncey, his best friend on the team and lead communicator on the offensive line.
But Roethlisberger's routine is uncommon for the position. Drew Brees, 40, has openly discussed how much he hates days off. Brady, 42, misses only the occasional day for injury. Roethlisberger's draftmates, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning, are known for never resting. Thirty-somethings Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford rarely do.
Fair or not, one player said, Roethlisberger's penchant for missing practices almost weekly and then coaching players hard when he participates can seem to suggest that everyone is on his time.
And Roethlisberger does insist on excellence when he's on the practice field, as running back Jaylen Samuels realized on his first day in pads last season. He didn't rip through a slant route, and Roethlisberger let him know the move was "soft as s---," Samuels says. "He came back and let me hear it," Samuels recalls.
But trust was building. The next day, the two worked like nothing had happened and Roethlisberger gave him route tips.
Many young receivers have faced this test, hoping reps with a future Hall of Famer maximizes results -- and they often do. The Steelers are hoping that's the case with promising second-year receiver James Washington, who'll have a much bigger role with Brown out of town.
"He'll test your ability to be a football player," says Sammie Coates, a Steelers receiver in 2015 and 2016. "He won't say much to you, but you'll know when he likes you and when he doesn't like you. ... But he made you be a good player by making you earn all your reps."
"A lot of guys know the truth. I think there was a lot of false [info] put out there. There's a little bit of talk about it, but [teammates] understood." Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
In the end, most players come back to the results. Clark says Roethlisberger wasn't known as the hardest worker on the team, but the former safety also doesn't believe in punching the clock. Steelers quarterbacks have a scheduled meeting after practices, and though Roethlisberger doesn't always attend, the meetings are considered developmental for young signal callers such as backup Mason Rudolph. Roethlisberger often watches film and game-plans with coaches early in the mornings.
Ryan Harris, a Steelers offensive tackle in 2017, says he was "surprised" by how much time he took off but "never felt any animosity."
"There are three guys in the NFL who can dictate what they need -- Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger," he says.
It's a common refrain: that the 67% of games Roethlisberger has won is proof his routine is working.
"He's been there for 20 years, and he acts like it," says retired wide receiver Markus Wheaton, who played with Roethlisberger from 2013 to 2016. "Guys may not like what he does or says sometimes, but look at his numbers. I don't see where the problem is. The way Ben has gone about his business has been working."
The Steelers locker room is calmer this offseason, which was inevitable considering the headlines Bell and Brown dominated. Even after a Week 1 rout by the Patriots, there's not much drama to sort out because roles are clearly defined.
Roethlisberger is the last Killer B standing, armed with a two-year, $68 million extension. The offense, even with all the new talent, is built around his arm, and after 15 years, the Steelers know he gives them a chance every Sunday. (Not that losing two All-Pros goes unnoticed, judging by Pittsburgh's Week 1 loss, in which the offense produced just 308 total yards.)
This is Roethlisberger's team -- even more so because the Steelers' current locker room is full of mostly young players who probably won't challenge Roethlisberger's authority, Clark says.
Most teammates believe that Roethlisberger knows he has to continue to improve as a leader and communicator.
"When a guy wants to step up and say, 'Man, I don't think I've been doing it right' and wants to get back on track ... it shows true leadership and true character, especially the fact he's doing it now and in such a late part of his career," McDonald says. "I think that's awesome and speaks to where he is as a player and a man."
Staying quiet during the initial wave of criticism from Bell and Brown was a good start, says Charlie Batch, Roethlisberger's backup for seven years and still a friend. "The only road he should have taken," Batch says.
In Roethlisberger, the Steelers hope that one more roll to his right, one more brilliant throw on the move in the final minutes, will catalyze the franchise to a seventh Super Bowl.
For that to happen, the strides Roethlisberger made with his teammates over the offseason must continue. At least through camp, he seemed committed to trying.
On one of the last days of camp, Roethlisberger was spotted with his right arm around Smith-Schuster, whose face mask was buried in his hands from the bench during a rain-soaked practice. Wide receivers coach Darryl Drake had died just days earlier, and emotions were raw.
The next week, Smith-Schuster addressed a media scrum by the locker room pool table. Roethlisberger was walking into a nearby hallway. The clock above read 9:43 a.m.
"JuJu, two minutes," Roethlisberger blurted, reminding him of the 9:45 team meeting.
Smith-Schuster politely ended the interview, then followed his quarterback, leaving a near-empty locker room behind.