Hines Ward owns all the Steelers' receiving records worth having: Career and season highs for receptions, yards and touchdown catches. His four Pro Bowls are more than any Steelers receiver. He earned a Super Bowl MVP. He even has the most career rushing yards for a Steelers receiver.
Yet Ward relentlessly looks for incentive, a slight that might motivate him, something to put the chip back where it belongs because those chips drive him, and he forever finds at least one.
"I'm always going to be that guy who played with a chip on his shoulder," Ward said at this weekend's minicamp. "I want to prove to everybody -- I don't even know what I have to prove, but I want to prove somebody something."
Like, another rookie wide receiver drafted in a high round?
The Steelers issued Ward a chip on a silver platter when they selected wide receiver Limas Sweed on the second round last week, then said they had him rated among the top 25 players in the draft. He's 6 feet 4, by the way, which fulfills quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's January wish for a tall receiver.
"Even though we drafted a guy, there's no hard feelings," Ward said without prompting. "I'm not mad at the organization or anything. They felt this guy could help us get to the next level and win a championship. If that can happen, why would I be mad at that?
"At the end of the day, Sweed is not going to change how Hines Ward plays. It doesn't bother me who they bring in. If he helps bring depth to our receiving corps and we go out there with a solid four wides, if he helps us that way to bring a championship here, hey I'm going to teach him all I can because I want him to go out and make plays."
Ward now has enough fuel for the 2008 season, his 11th. He has not forgotten that he was not drafted until the third round, which isn't much lower than where Sweed was picked. Nor has he forgotten that the next year, 1999, the Steelers drafted a receiver in the first round, Troy Edwards, and then the year after that, Plaxico Burress.
There have been 12 wide receivers drafted by the Steelers since 1999, three of them in the first round, including Santonio Holmes in 2006, and two in the second. It still bothers Ward that he was demoted from his starting job in training camp when Burress arrived, even though he tied for the team lead in receiving the previous season.
Still going strong at age 32, Ward will count on the double slight of age and a hot-shot new receiver for motivation.
"I don't forget those days when I was getting looked over by people," Ward said. "To this day, everybody is waiting for Hines Ward to fall off. I love that, that gives me motivation to go out and prove a lot of people wrong.
"It doesn't really matter who we bring in, I'm not going to change my game, I'm going to be Hines Ward. No. 86 is going to continue to play the way he's always been playing."
Sweed has been placed behind Holmes at split end, which is the easiest position for a rookie to learn. Rather demonstrably, Ward has been working with Sweed in minicamp this weekend.
Ward has not yet practiced. He had knee surgery after playing on torn ligaments, the PCL and MCL, that occurred in the third game against San Francisco. In the past, he said he might have been on the field in similar circumstances because he would have worried about his job.
But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talked to him long before the spring workouts began and told Ward to take his time, that he did not have to practice, that his job was safe. Ward said that is the first time a coach ever approached him like that and he will take him at his word. It's why he remained at home in Atlanta this year to work out and rehabilitate his knee longer than he normally might have before joining his teammates.
"For so many years, I felt like I had to practice hurt, just to prove a point," Ward said. "Now I don't feel like I have to do that. When doctors clear me to go out there and do it, I'll be out there. My job is to teach the younger guys."
Some listen, some don't. After watching Ward work with Sweed in minicamp, Holmes said he benefited greatly from having Ward as a veteran tutor.
"He did the same exact thing for me when I came in," said Holmes, who led the NFL last season with an 18.1-yard average per catch. "Tell you the truth, I want Hines to play another five years with me if he can. That's going to help me become a great one. For me to take that leadership role when he leaves, for guys to follow, will keep the program going, leave a trail of great receivers here in Pittsburgh."
The trail is easily found, by following all those chips fallen from the shoulders of Hines Ward through the years.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published May 4, 2008 4:00 AM