Hines Ward retired from football after the 2011 season as the Steelers' all-time leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He still holds those records.
And just as Ward's records live on in the Steel City, so does his appreciation for the place that gave him his start as a pro. Drafted in 1998 out of the University of Georgia, Ward quickly became a fan favorite for his tenacious style and gritty attitude — always, somehow, delivered with a smile.
"I wasn't the biggest, I wasn't the fastest, but I worked my butt off," Ward recently told 247Sports in an interview. "Coming from a blue-collar city like Pittsburgh, I think fans could appreciate that."
Ward went on to call the fan base "unreal ... like no other," saying he and his wife still travel to Pittsburgh frequently for charity work. To Ward, that matters. Pittsburgh didn't take him for granted and he's making sure to return the favor, even after football.
"For me, [it's about] always representing the black and gold no matter where I'm at, all over the world," Ward said. "I just think I'm always going to have a special place in Pittsburgh because I bleed black and gold."
It wasn't all smiles for Ward with the Steelers, of course. Throughout his tenure, the team won two Super Bowls — one in which Ward was named the game's MVP — but they also lost a third shot at the Lombardi Trophy, falling to the Packers, 31-25, in Super Bowl XLV. Reflecting on his career, Ward says that's the one that still stings the most. In fact, he's actively tried to erase it from his life.
"When we lost to the Packers, I didn't want to watch television for about a month," Ward said. "All the Sports Illustrated commercials ... I didn't want [to] see any of that stuff. I don't have any of my Super Bowl memorabilia from that loss to the Packers [laughs]. I gave it all away to family and friends."
While Ward maintains every major receiving record for the Steelers, many — myself included — felt Antonio Brown was destined to snag them all. Brown was on pace to do just that — and then "Mr. Big Chest" happened. I don't think we need to go through that saga again.
What we do need to address, however, is a comment Ward made regarding this dynamic. Even though Brown had the numbers, focusing solely on stats misses the point in his eyes.
"Yes, we were a running team, I played with Jerome Bettis, we ran the ball 40-50 times a game," Ward said. "You can’t compare my stats to what Antonio Brown is doing right now. It’s not even comparable. But in the big games, when it mattered the most, I took great pride in being the go-to guy, being someone the team can lean on. I played like that, I learned that from [Lynn Swann] and [John Stallworth]."
Ward repeatedly referred to his Steelers' squads as a "family," remarking upon chemistry both on and off the field. That aspect is certainly important to him, as he was quick to criticize last year's Steelers team when things began to unravel. Now, Ward maintains his overall point, but he's softened his stance just a touch.
"I get it. Being a former player, I do get embarrassed talking about the drama more than the football itself," Ward said. "I understand the culture [in Pittsburgh], I’ve been there, I've played there 14 years. When you talked about Steelers football, it was never about off the field stuff. It was always about ‘Let’s prepare for the Pittsburgh Steelers because they’re gonna hit you in the mouth regardless, on offense and defense.’ That’s what it should be about.”
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