In Pittsburgh, panic, prayers

At the intersection of Locust and Marion streets yesterday, halfway up a steep hill that overlooks both the heart of downtown and the twists and turns of the Monongahela River, a small group of Pittsburgh Steelers fans gathered outside Mercy Hospital and prayed.

It was a way to find comfort and to avoid feeling helpless, and after a day that was equal parts confusing, frustrating, agonizing and surreal for many, those prayers made it a little bit easier to deal with the harsh reality many Steelers fans were facing.When word started to circulate around noon that someone had been injured in a motorcycle accident while traveling east on 2nd Street, and that the injured person might in fact be Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a hero and an iconic figure in this working class city of 335,000, the first reaction for many fans was shock, then panic.

Telephones chirped, talk radio buzzed, frantic e-mails were sent and rumors raged. Was it really true? How serious was it? And was he going to die? Slowly, as the hours ticked away, the local media began to sort through some of the speculation and gossip.

Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, had been seriously injured but was at least conscious and speaking at the scene. Most reports were saying he had a broken jaw, missing teeth, a serious gash to the back of his head and possibly multiple knee injures. But for now, his life didn't seem to be in danger.

It was then that new questions began to emerge. Why in the world wasn't he wearing a helmet? Hadn't he been warned that something like this might happen? Did it matter that he didn't appear to be at fault? And lastly, what did this mean for the defending Super Bowl champions?

On ESPN Radio AM 1250, Mark Madden, the city's controversial but popular sports talk show host, repeatedly blasted Steelers fans who called in to express their frustration about Roethlisberger possibly missing the upcoming season, or more. Madden called Steelers fans "losers," "scumbags," "lowlifes," and "pathetic human beings" if they so much as brought up the season on the air.

"This is more upsetting than 9/11 to some fans because it involves the Steelers," Madden said sarcastically. "That's how pathetic some of you people are."

For those who made the trip to the hospital, however, Roethlisberger's football career seemed to be of little concern. Lifelong Steelers fan Nichol Mitchell heard about the accident shortly after it happened, and she immediately called two friends, told them to put on some Steelers clothing and come with her to the hospital.

Across the street from the emergency room entrance, Mitchell set up a makeshift tailgate, complete with lawn chairs and a barbecue for grilling hot dogs, and said she wasn't leaving until she knew Roethlisberger was going to be all right.

"This is something that's tragic for the whole city," Mitchell said. "We're just here for all the people who are praying for Ben right now and can't make it. I want to know for myself that he's alive, and that he's going to come out of this OK. Because he's like family to us. He really is. I'll wait here all night if I have to."

Farther up the hill across the street from the hospital, Steelers fan Joshua Walker stood quietly by himself, occasionally taking pictures of the huge swarm of reporters that clamored to get a comment each time one of Roethlisberger's teammates arrived at the hospital.

"My mom is a huge Steeler fan, so when I heard what happened, I immediately called her," said Walker, who was back home for the summer after finishing his junior year at Marietta College in Ohio. "She turned on the news and just started crying. You don't want to see something like this happen to anyone, whether they're a celebrity or not, but football in Pittsburgh is like a religion.

"We all know Big Ben. We're all hurting right now. Having this happen is going to be really detrimental to the spirit of this city, but at the same time, I think that spirit will help him as he goes through recovery."

Sherry Williams, a Steelers fan who lives in Youngstown, Ohio, put on her No. 7 Roethlisberger jersey when she heard what had happened, and jumped in her car almost instantly. She said she prayed for Roethlisberger the entire hour-and-a-half drive to Pittsburgh but knew that she had to be there to show him support.

"When they said motorcycle injury, I was frightened," said Williams, who works as a patient care assistant at Northside Medical Center in Youngstown. "That's just what you feel every time you hear about a motorcycle accident. The nurses at my hospital thought from my reaction that one of my family members had been hurt. But he is family to me."

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