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“Big Ben” Roethlisberger comes home

Ben Roethlisberger at home at last

American football star Ben Roethlisberger has set many records in his few years as a professional athlete. He has recently added another: youngest Swiss ambassador.

In his new role, Roethlisberger was invited to see his ancestral home for the first time by the organisers of the government-run campaign, Swiss Roots, designed to promote Swiss-American relations.

The big day kicked off with a news conference called for 10am in a school gymnasium in the community of Lauperswil, which groups a handful of sleepy villages and hamlets set amid the green hills of the Emmental countryside.

The Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback and his entourage showed up at 10.30am but his late arrival was a blessing in disguise. The American reporters had time to ask their Swiss counterparts about Swiss culture and customs, while the local journalists tried to come to terms with the alien sport of American football.

Little attention was paid to the speeches made by Swiss officials, including the local mayor, who presented a laundry list of statistics about the community Karl Roethlisberger abandoned 133 years ago for a better life in America.

But in a nod to the athlete, Bendicht Loosli, or “little Ben” as the mayor was dubbed for the occasion, said Lauperswil’s pure air and high-quality local produce, such as its cheese, helped “produce strong men and women”.

The cameras started flashing when the 24-year-old got his turn to speak. Big Ben used superlatives to describe his first impressions of Switzerland. “Amazing” he said, and the scenery was “like out of a dream or movie”.

One in a million

Roethlisberger is, quite literally, one in a million, which is the number of US citizens who reportedly have Swiss ancestry. But only a few are household names, making the quarterback a public relations dream come true.

The pictures Americans will see of Roethlisberger’s brief tour of Switzerland will reinforce the positive, albeit clichéd, image most still have of the country: Ben sightseeing with his family in Bern and Lucerne, holding up a slab of Swiss cheese, and shaking hands with locals outside the broad-roofed farmhouse in the picturesque hamlet where his great-great grandfather lived.

“It helps Americans to see that there are different cultures out there and different worlds and thank goodness there are places that aren’t so crazy about American football and places that put sports into perspective,” said one of the American journalists, David Fleming, of the US sports network, ESPN.

But without the fame and fortune that comes with being football’s premier playmaker, nobody would have gone to the trouble of re-opening the slim chapter on the life of a poor 19th-century émigré.

Blue-eyed and balding

The original document permitting Karl Roethlisberger to travel to the United States shows that he was 32, blue-eyed and balding – and more importantly had no outstanding debts.

“When we came over the hill, we realised he probably looked at these very same things,” said a clearly touched Ken Roethlisberger, Ben’s father. “I can see how a person could live here, it’s amazing.”

Overlooked by most of the journalists was the presence at the farmhouse of Otto Roethlisberger. The 95-year-old was one of the distant relatives invited to the event to be introduced to the American celebrity.

“My father knew his great-great grandfather and we were aware that part of the family emigrated but we didn’t keep in touch with them,” the elderly man said of the time when poverty was widespread and many Swiss had no choice but to start new lives abroad.

He said he did not get much of a chance to speak with the American and that a translator had to aid in the introductions, but he did get to present the young man with a family heirloom, a small watch from 1912. “I heard he likes watches,” he said.

In return, the organisers of the event hope that Big Ben’s visit will pay dividends, inspiring others with Swiss roots to rediscover their homeland.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Lauperswil

As quarterback (playmaker), Ben Roethlisberger led the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory in this year’s Super Bowl, American football’s championship game.
He set several National Football League (NFL) “rookie” (first season) records in 2004 including highest percentage of pass completions (66.4%) and passer rating (98.1).
In the same rookie season, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to compile a 13-0 record as a starter.

One of the main aims of the Swiss Roots campaign is to motivate Americans of Swiss origin to discover the homeland of their ancestors and get in touch with Swiss relatives.

Swiss Roots also offers a platform for exchange between the US and Switzerland in various fields such as politics, business, culture and education.

There are about one million Americans of Swiss descent and about 5,000 US towns and cities have Swiss names.

Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin will open the Ellis Island exhibition in New York on Swiss emigration titled “Small Number – Big Impact”, at the end of July.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR