Hines Ward presents a signed football to a child of mixed racial origins yesterday in Seoul.
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Imagine that: Hines Ward as Martin Luther King Jr.
Little did the Steelers Nation know, the man is more than mirth and grit, more than smiles and miles of receptions, more than big plays and big blocks. He is quite possibly the cause for social change coming to South Korea's heretofore closed society. He is a shining example to 35,000 people like him and an entire nation. 'Tis better to give back than to receive meaningless passes.
Forget the Super Bowl MVP, how about the Nobel peace prize?
"Uncle Hines Ward, you are cool and I love you," 7-year-old Kim Gwan-woo, a mixed-race child -- derisively called twigi there -- just like Uncle Hines, stood up and proclaimed at a large gathering in his native Seoul the other day, the Associated Press reported. It was dubbed a "hope-sharing" meeting. There could be no better description for time spent between a millionaire athlete and children. "Hope-sharing." Makes fees for autographs sound so despicable.
"I love you, guy, too," Ward was quoted as replying. "I know you guys go through a great deal of hardship with prejudice and having people discriminating against you."
This is a centuries-old problem that predates the Korean War and the subsequent military presence there, something that gave rise to Hines Ward Jr. in 1976. South Korea is a nation with a vise-tight social registry and a blood-is-destiny conviction. Mixed-race children there continue to find doors shut in their different faces. And their numbers continue to rise, as women flee rural areas for the cities and cause farmers to marry natives from once-rival Asian nations, such as China and Vietnam. Fifteen percent of South Korea's babies in 2005 were of mixed parentage.
Pure Korea is getting a dose of pure Hines Ward, getting a clear message about mixed cultures from someone who has endured the worst in two of them, spending his first couple of years in South Korea before his African-American soldier father and Korean mother, Kim Young Hee, moved to America and divorced. Make that three cultures: Korean, black and divorce.
He was such a celebrity in the days before his and his mother's first return trip home, his name was the most popular on one Korean Internet search engine. Firmly back on his native soil, he has begun to slightly move the earth there.
South Korean media have taken up the cry to end prejudice. Politicians mull over laws to protect the rights of people of mixed races. There are proposals to change language in school textbooks -- from "one bloodline" to "multicultural" Korea -- and admissions quotas at universities.
Imagine that: Hines Ward as Brown v. Board of Education, James Meredith and James Baldwin.
Social injustice may get washed away bit by grimy bit in South Korea, owing to a game known everywhere else on the planet as American football. A half-Korean was a star on the largest athletic stage in the world's most powerful country, and it stirred South Korea. Such a bright moment it was, this mixed-race American football player was invited home to be feted as if he were royalty, or Nelson Mandela, or the inventor of world peace.
OK, so there's one instance where Ward erred: Visiting dignitaries shouldn't arrive in Fubu T-shirts and jackets. Otherwise, he has well played the parts of both King Ward to the populace and Uncle Hines to children like him and not.
The front page of the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper declared, "There are even calls for us to learn the cultural inclusiveness of American society that made Ward's success possible."
Not that his America home is perfect, as his own experiences growing up in Atlanta can attest. Racism, being a latch-key kid while his mother worked three jobs, his father coming back into his life -- he has seen so much in a still-racist land where only six years ago did the U.S. Census first permit people to officially identify themselves as belonging to more than one racial group, meaning an uptick in the counted Asian-American population. A week into his first return to his native land, halfway around the world, he must feel like anything but a pro athlete this week. He is a pied piper. He is a social leader. From the power-football Steelers comes the power of football.
"Hopefully, I can kind of lead the way for you guys," Ward told Kim and the children. "If the country can accept me for who I am and accept me for being a Korean, I'm pretty sure that this country can change and accept you for who you are."
Funny, but Detroit produced Rosa Parks, too.
Chuck Finder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1724.