Hines Ward caught more passes for more yards and more touchdowns than anyone in Steelers history and introduced the devastating wide receiver block -- almost always delivered with a smile on his face -- to the modern National Football League.
Wednesday, the Steelers delivered the toughest body-blow to Mr. Ward's 14-year career when they announced their plans to release him, without ever asking him to take a pay cut.
Mr. Ward saw this possibility coming after the coaches demoted him from his 13-year run as a starter Nov. 13 in Cincinnati, then used him sparingly for the final seven games. They did frantically and successfully manage to help him become only the eighth player in NFL history to catch 1,000 passes, targeting him enough times in the final two games for him to hit that number on the nose with five receptions in the finale at Cleveland.
It became almost apparent then that this might have been their final gift to the tough, little receiver from Georgia, a third-round draft choice in 1998 who played his entire career with the Steelers.
That career -- or at least his decorated career with the Steelers -- ended Wednesday. Mr. Ward said often that he planned to play in 2012 somewhere, even if the Steelers did not want him back, and he made those intentions known again in a statement Wednesday.
"This isn't how I wanted this chapter of my career to end," Mr. Ward said in the statement released through his lawyer and manager, Andy Ree. "I did everything in my power to remain a Steeler and finish what I started here 14 years ago.
"I want to thank the organization, my teammates and coaches and everyone who made my run as a Steeler the best years of my life. To Mr. Rooney [Mr. Ward did not specify whether he meant Dan Rooney, the team chairman emeritus, or Art Rooney II, the team president], thank you for allowing me to play for one of the greatest organizations in the world. To my fans and in particular, Steeler Nation, thank you for your support and all the great memories.
"I gave my heart and soul for you every down and I will always bleed black and gold. I do feel that I still have more football left in me and I am looking forward to playing in the NFL, again, this upcoming season."
Mr. Ward, who had two years left on his contract at a $4 million annual salary, was never offered a chance to take a pay cut, a source close to the receiver told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That would indicate the decision was based purely on their assessment of him as a player.
Mr. Ward opened the 2011 season as a starter along with Mike Wallace, but he finished it with his lowest production since his rookie season. He caught 46 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns, missing one game against New England with an ankle injury.
The Steelers elevated second-year receiver Antonio Brown to a starter, and he had a spectacular second-half of the season, finishing with 69 receptions and 1,108 yards. Jerricho Cotchery, a veteran signed last year to a one-year contract, and Emmanuel Sanders also passed Mr. Ward on the depth chart at various points in 2011.
Art Rooney II, who along with general manager Kevin Colbert, had tip-toed around the issue since the end of the season, said he talked Wednesday with Mr. Ward and told him he would be released by March 13, the start of free agency and the 2012 NFL year.
"Hines has been an integral part of our success since we drafted him in 1998 and we will forever be grateful for what he has helped us achieve," Mr. Rooney said on Steelers.com. "He has meant so much to this organization, both on and off the field, and we appreciate his efforts over the past 14 years. Hines' accomplishments are numerous, and he will always be thought of as one of the all-time great Steelers. We wish him nothing but the best."
Mr. Ward had 1,000 receptions for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns, all Steelers records. He was most valuable player of Super Bowl XL and made the Pro Bowl four times, more than any receiver in team history.
As soon as he is released, he will be free to sign with any team in the NFL.
Mr. Ward told the Post-Gazette in a Feb. 2 interview in Indianapolis during the week of the Super Bowl that he had met with Mr. Rooney and coach Mike Tomlin and told them he wanted to play for the Steelers in 2012 and was willing to take a pay cut. He said both men were noncommittal about his return.
"I just wanted to let them know I want to be here, I want to play," Mr. Ward said then. "I have two years on my contract. I know I have to restructure, but under the circumstances I think I can still play football."
Mr. Ward, who turns 36 next Thursday, isn't the first member of the Steelers' 75th Anniversary All-Time Team to leave unwillingly. Running back Franco Harris was cut before the 1984 season over a contract dispute, and he ended his career playing for Seattle. Cornerback Rod Woodson and guard Alan Faneca each reluctantly left as a free agent. The Steelers released two of their great linebackers, Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter, and each went on to play for others. Safety Carnell Lake, now the Steelers' secondary coach, played for two more teams after leaving. Chuck Noll cut defensive end L.C. Greenwood during the 1982 training camp. Center Mike Webster was forced into retirement after the '88 season, then played two more seasons in Kansas City.
Mr. Ward was popular, not only for his production but for how he played and his demeanor in doing so. After catching a touchdown pass, he almost always would seek out someone in the stands, home and away, wearing his No. 86 jersey and hand him the ball. He would take a brutal blow after catching a pass, or deliver one with a block, and almost always popped up immediately with a smile on his face. His desire to throw tough blocks as a wide receiver, in an era when many at his position would not think of doing so, drew praise from his coaches and teammates and often disdain from opponents.
He once threw a block on an unsuspecting Mr. Woodson, then playing for the Baltimore Ravens, that sent the Hall of Fame defensive back into a rage on the field. A blindside block Mr. Ward delivered to Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers in 2008 broke the rookie's jaw. The NFL passed what was often called the "Hines Ward Rule" after that season, outlawing such blocks.
But there was a soft side to Mr. Ward, too. He used his fame from his Super Bowl MVP award that offseason to visit his native South Korea, where he was hailed as a hero by those in that country who did not know if a football was blown up or stuffed. That visit moved Mr. Ward to create a foundation to help the biracial South Korean people -- those, like him, who were children of mostly South Korean women and U.S. African-American servicemen -- children who had been ostracized in South Korean society.
His African-American father left the family when Mr. Ward was young, after the family moved to Georgia. Mr. Ward often told of how his South Korean mother, who moved to the United States one year after he was born, worked three jobs to keep them solvent even though she did not speak English
He also conquered an entirely different field of entertainment when he won ABC-TV's popular show "Dancing With The Stars" last May, admitting beforehand that he hardly ever took to the dance floor previously.
Two months later, he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence in suburban Atlanta. Prosecutors recently dropped that charge and accepted a plea from Mr. Ward to reckless driving.
Mr. Ward, who played his entire career without an anterior cruciate ligament in a knee, made his first start in the 1999 opener at Cleveland and he caught passes in 186 consecutive games. He led the team in receptions for 11 consecutive seasons until Mr. Wallace finished with one more than he did in 2010.
Mr. Ward complained bitterly in the 2000 training camp about being demoted behind two first-round picks, Troy Edwards (1999) and rookie Plaxico Burress, but he was quickly re-installed as a starter. Since that time, Mr. Ward played with what he called a "chip on his shoulder," because of his perceived slights, including his status as a "mere" third-round draft pick, an attitude that also stemmed from being put down in his formative years in Georgia because he was biracial.
Mr. Ward burst into the national arena in 2001 when he set a Steelers record with 94 receptions. He would go on to break his own record three more times with a high of 112 in '02. He holds six of the Steelers' top seven seasons for receptions. His 1,000 career receptions nearly double those of Hall of Famer John Stallworth, who finished his 14-year career with 537.
First Published March 1, 2012 5:00 AM