Ben Roethlisberger Gone, Not Forgotten in Milledgeville
Like the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback's bar-hopping 28th birthday party 10 months ago, dozens ended up at the Capital City nightclub -- site of the alleged sexual assault that brought the media glare to this town about two hours southeast of Atlanta. The 20-year-old accuser decided not to pursue the case, although the NFL forced Roethlisberger to sit out the first four games of the season.
But as Roethlisberger led the Steelers back to the AFC title game, where Pittsburgh is set to host the New York Jets, memories of that March night have largely faded from the national consciousness.
Just not around here.
"Since we were on national television, people must have looked at us and thought we were all dumb rednecks," said Daniel Leclercq, a sophomore at Georgia College & State University.
A professor who strolled along West Hancock Street with a cigarette in hand on this frigid night took it a step further.
"Why did he have to single out Milledgeville, come down here and do something we all think is disgraceful?" asked Doug Oetter, who teaches geography at GCSU. "What he did was spoil our city. It ruined us. It made Milledgeville a laughing stock."
And Oetter grew up in Pittsburgh.
"I'm a Jets fan this weekend," he quipped.
The accuser has returned to school after taking a few weeks off after she reported to police in the early morning hours of March 5 that Roethlisberger assaulted her inside a unisex bathroom in the back of Capital City. Authorities lacked the physical evidence – including sufficient DNA material -- that would link Roethlisberger to the incident, leaving the district attorney little choice but to drop the case once the accuser notified authorities she did not want to pursue it.
"Everybody still loves her," said Jordan Eisner, a senior at GCSU. "She's a great girl. Everybody treats her the same. She acted awesome through this whole thing."
Those interviewed late Saturday night and early Sunday morning by FanHouse said the reverberations from the incident can still be felt. Those on campus still talk about it and rumors -- like a six-figure settlement -- persist.
A message left with the accuser's Atlanta -based attorney, Lee Parks, this weekend was not immediately returned.
Then there is the more substantive fallout.
Sgt. Jerry Blash of the Milledgeville Police Department, the first person the accuser reported the alleged assault to moments after she fled Capital City, resigned in April. He was seen in photographs obtained by the local paper, The Union-Recorder, posing with Roethlisberger earlier that same night.
"The cops have always been terrible," said Ian Frye, a junior at GCSU. "The incident just revealed that to everybody. I think now they're afraid for their jobs."
That's one hypothesis for what appears to be an increased emphasis on the scrutiny of underage drinking, something the accuser partook in before the alleged incident.
"If there's a fraternity party at a bar now, the cops will be there 10-deep," said freshman Zach Rydel. "It's crazy. I heard that during the second semester, (enforcement) usually drops off. It's not dropping off. It sucks."
Hours later, a member of Rydel's group was arrested for allegedly being drunk in public.
While there is no official correlation, the number of on-campus drug and alcohol incidents recorded saw a major jump in 2010. According to the school newspaper, The Colonnade, there were 33 drug and 36 alcohol violations versus two of each in 2009 -- and those are just the students who are referred to the judicial board.
The locals said that Milledgeville police has also stepped up their enforcement efforts, empowered by a new local ordinance that mandates better checks of identification.
A message left for Milledgeville Police Chief Woodrow W. Blue was not immediately returned.
Then there are the not-to-so-subtle reminders of Roethlisberger's infamy here.
On Halloween, a couple people dressed up as Roethlisberger -- Steelers jerseys and all -- and partied at Capital City. And in the back room of Capital City last week -- not far from where the alleged assault took place -- country music singer Luke Bryan put his spin on the incident by re-naming the Alabama hit from "Dixieland Delight" to "Roethlisberger's Delight," freshman Joey Perry told FanHouse. The lyrics recounted some of the unseemly details of what allegedly took place.
There have, however, been some positive changes at Capital City, according to some minority students.
"You would hardly ever see any black dudes in there," said a sophomore, who declined to give his name due to the racial sensitivity in the area. "Now, they're letting us in. I don't know what it is, but something has changed. Last year, I couldn't get into Capital City if I wanted to."
Capital City -- which is open from 11 pm to 2 am Thursday through Saturday -- was again packed as last call crept up. A black curtain separated the main floor form the hallway that led to the tiny bathroom.
Eisner, the senior at GCSU, said he'd rather not see Big Ben anywhere near this place.
"He's not welcome here," Eisner declared.