Hines Ward continues to do it year after year ..
BY JIM THOMAS Posted: Sunday, February 6, 2011 12:20 am
DALLAS -- Five years ago this week, Pittsburgh defeated Seattle 21-10 in Super Bowl XL, and after that game one of the all-time great Steelers — running back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis — rode off into retirement.
Now what about Hines Ward? One of the all-time great Steelers concludes his 13th NFL season in Super Bowl XLV against Green Bay. And one of the nostalgic story lines leading into the Pittsburgh-Green Bay matchup is the possibility that Ward will pull a Bettis on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.
Steelers win. Ward, 34, calls it a career. Such a scenario might have Steeler Nation using their Terrible Towels to wipe away moist eyes. Is this Ward's last game? For some reason, he kept getting that question this week.
"I'm not retiring," Ward said. "I'm not in the mood to retire. That was the No. 1 question that was asked. It's almost like they're pushing me out. Until Coach (Mike) Tomlin says he does not need my services anymore, I am going to continue playing."
Ward holds just about every receiving record the Steelers keep. Then again, he has been a fixture in the Steel City for a while after being drafted in the third round in 1998. That makes him the longest-tenured wide receiver with one team currently in the league.
The younger receivers on the Pittsburgh roster call Ward "Old Money." But young, old or in between, Ward has always been "money" for the Steelers' passing game. Game after game, season after season, he shows up and produces at a high level.
For 11 consecutive seasons, from 1999 through 2009, Ward led the Steelers in receptions. (He shared the team lead with Troy Edwards in '99.) The string was broken this year, but not by much: Mike Wallace had 60 catches in the regular season to Ward's 59.
All but immune to injury, Ward has missed only six games over his career. He had a streak of 186 consecutive games with a reception, the third longest in NFL history, snapped in Game 9 this season against New England.
In a game characterized by constant change, that's a lot of consistency and dependability.
"To still be here at such a high level after 13 years, it seems like every Super Bowl I've got a different counterpoint opposite me," Ward said. "I just remember (Antwaan) Randle El in Super Bowl XL throwing me the ball, and then Santonio Holmes in XLIII catching that ball in the end zone.
"I was just ecstatic for all of them, and here I am still plugging along at it. I know one day, eventually, they'll replace me, but you know, I don't look at that. It's not what they do; it's what I do. If I start to find signs that I'm falling off, or I'm not getting open against guys that I think I should get open against, I'll walk away from the game easily."
But for now, the hunger and desire are stronger than ever, particularly as he approaches his third Super Bowl as a Steeler. Five years ago, he was Super Bowl MVP with five catches for 123 yards against Seattle. His 43-yard TD reception on a trick play — a wide receiver pass from Randle El — all but clinched the victory with just under 9 minutes to play.
Two years ago, as much as he enjoyed Holmes' dramatic TD catch with 6 seconds to play to beat Arizona 27-23 in Super Bowl XLIII, Ward was very limited because of a knee injury. He had two catches for 43 yards in that contest.
The departure of Holmes after the 2009 season resulted in opposing defenses paying even more attention to Ward. Surrounded by young wide receivers, Ward started the season seeing consistent double coverage. But Wallace, a speedy second-year player, took advantage of that by enjoying a breakout season that included 10 touchdowns and 1,257 yards.
With guidance from Ward, who serves as kind of a second wide receiver coach, rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown also made contributions over the course of the season.
"Hines has a huge impact," Sanders said. "I remember I was ecstatic just going to a great organization like this with the Rooney family and the winning tradition. But I was really ecstatic because my mentor is Hines Ward. He's been playing in the NFL for 13 years, two Super Bowl rings, Super Bowl MVP — you couldn't have a better situation."
Ward's advice isn't limited to football, either.
"Hines is always telling us, not just on the field but off the field, how to carry yourself and be accountable," Wallace said. "Hines is on the (Barack) Obama team, so you know that's the right guy to be listening to."
Ward, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, and has a Korean mother, has become an advocate for acceptance of biracial births in South Korea. In September, President Obama appointed Ward to the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
So there's more to Ward than just football. And don't be fooled by his amiable ways and beaming smile. He's not shy about offering a strong opinion or criticizing the league.
In an interview with GQ published Tuesday, Ward accused the league of hypocrisy in trying to limit helmet-to-helmet hits while at the same time lobbying for an 18-game regular season.
"To say the league really cares? They don't give a (bleep) about concussions," Ward said. "And now they want to add on two extra games? Are you kidding? Come on, let's be real."
He elaborated on those topics and others during Super Bowl week.
• On his reputation as a dirty player: "I'm not out there to try to hurt anybody. Everybody says, 'Well, he hits guys when they're not looking.' Should I tap on your shoulder and say, 'Here I come; hit me.' At the end of the day, I just play football the way it should be played."
• On the lack of a collective bargaining agreement: "A lot of people don't understand, come March 4, we don't have insurance. They're stripping away our (health) insurance. If you get a major injury in this (Super Bowl) game, you've got to have surgery and at the end of the day they're not even going to pay for the rehab. This is a serious matter. I think it's flying under the radar."
• On how players feel about an 18-game season: "Nobody that I've talked to wants to do it. Even if they say the pay (goes up), that's not good money. All money is not good money. Guys don't want to jeopardize their health for two more game checks."
All money may not be good money. But "Old Money" remains as good as gold.