The Last Ward
Steelers legend Hines Ward talks retirement, sacrifice and — of course — the Ravens.
Hines Ward is in his happy place. He's in the middle of chaos, surrounded by moving bodies, Terrible Towels and flashing cameras. This is the kind of place where he lived for 14 seasons, hauling in 1,000 career receptions in between defenders who wanted to wipe that smile off of his face. But today, Ward's mud-stained No. 86 jersey has been replaced by a blue pinstripe suit, the moving bodies are assistants and the Terrible Towels are inanimate — stacked high for him to sign for charity. The smile, however, remains the same.
Ward is in the green room of the Sen. John Heinz History Center. He's returned to Pittsburgh from Atlanta, where he now resides, to honor 26 high school student-athletes for the Western Pennsylvania Positive Athlete Awards. While he didn't plan to retire in 2012, Ward hasn't missed a stride in his improvised post-NFL existence, and he's hoping to carry on the values he learned from two former Steeler greats.
"Jerome Bettis, Levon Kirkland — those guys gave up a lot of their free time to give back in the community," Ward says. "I learned a lot from watching them. I'm going to stay in the light in the Pittsburgh communities. I want to give back to a city that’s given me so much."
Still, Ward admits that it was strange driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel for the first time since his retirement, seeing Heinz Field yawning into the Ohio River and realizing that things are different now.
"For a while, I felt like I did want to keep playing," he says. "But that was just the younger me trying to prove a point. You know, I came into this league as a third-round guy, and now, people are debating whether or not I'm a Hall of Famer. I've caught 80-yard touchdowns. I ran with one of the fastest guys in the league, DeAngelo Hall, with one shoe on. To me, all I ever wanted when I left the game was for people to say, 'He was one hell of a football player.'"
When Ward talks about the Pittsburgh community, his voice is soft and remarkably sincere. When he talks about football, his voice rises and his eyes flash like an excitable kid. He'll long for the wars.
"The only thing I'll miss is that competitive edge," Ward says. "I spent so many years going against Deshea Townsend. I saw the guy every day. We were roommates, suitemates in camp and then I'd go against him every day in practice. He knew my best moves and I knew his. I loved that competition. How can I replace that? We can get on "Madden" on the Xbox and play all day, but I don't think I'll ever get the thrill of that one-on-one again."
It's hard to imagine Ward watching the bi-annual Steelers vs. Ravens apocalypse from the comfort of his sofa, surrounded by throw pillows. He can't stand watching football on television because his mind starts humming, processing every play and critiquing every wide receiver who misses a blocking assignment. Even with all the hardware he owns, Ward seems to cherish the blocks the most, especially the famous 2010 de-cleating that turned Ravens safety Ed Reed into a turf angel.
"The rivalry itself speaks volumes," Ward says. "They have the same expectations we have. Every training camp, the goal is the Super Bowl and nothing less. That one hit displayed that we were going to physically wear on them. Once players saw that hit, it renewed the whole thing. It was a bloodbath. You'd never expect it coming from a wide receiver. Ed Reed — he's a Hall of Fame player. Well, this is what I did to the Hall of Fame player. I imposed my will on him."
Now, armed with a giant Sharpie, Ward is imposing his will on the never-ending stack of Terrible Towels. He personalizes each one. They're not fans to Ward — they're neighbors.
"There's not a day that goes by that somebody doesn't stop me in the street to shake my hand and tell me how much I mean to their family," he says. "Yes, I live in Atlanta, but Pittsburgh will always be home."
Many have wondered whether Ward will become an assistant with the Steelers — but he goes back to another thing he learned from his friend Bettis: "It'll be different not being out there, but I asked Jerome and he said, 'Be a part of it, but don't really be a part of it. Then you won't miss it as much.'"
Whether or not Ward makes the Hall of Fame cut, he will forever be remembered as one of the last of a dying breed of old-world warriors. He had an NFL rule named after him. Contact only seemed to make his smile grow wider. He offered his body as a sacrifice to the Church of Rooney. But what Steelers fans will remember about his legacy is that he sacrificed his heart, too.
"Fourteen years — what more can you ask for?" Ward says. "I've gotten everything any pro athlete could ever want. I've won two Super Bowls, an MVP, I'm a part of the greatest organization in all of football, I met both President Bush and President Obama, been in a Batman movie and a Head & Shoulders commercial. Shoot, I don't even have hair!"