Nothing dirty about Ward's rugged play

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So the Cincinnati Bengals want a piece of Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward when the teams play again Nov. 20?

Please.

They had better get in line.

It is a very long line.

Baltimore Ravens safety Rod Woodson threatened to get even with Ward after his nose was bloodied by a Ward block in 2001. Ravens linebacker Bart Scott threatened to kill Ward after he was flattened by a Ward hit in '07. Cleveland Browns cornerback Daven Holly called the Ward block that left him with a concussion last season "a heinous act." Ravens cornerback Chris McAllister used a vulgar term to describe Ward in '04 for no other reason than, well, Ward is Ward.

Now, along come the Bengals after Ward's hard-but-clean block knocked rookie linebacker Keith Rivers out for the season with a broken jaw Sunday.

"Too bad he can't hit someone face up," Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe said. "It's the type of guy he is. He's a blind-side guy. That's all right. We play them again."

That didn't bother Ward in the slightest. "They all hate me in the division," he said yesterday. "I don't worry about someone trying to take me out. I don't even think about it. I know they're going to try to hit me hard any chance they get. That's why I always try to hit them hard first."

But this bothered Ward greatly: "I hate that they're saying I'm a dirty player when I didn't do anything wrong. How can it be a dirty play when I don't get penalized? How can it be a dirty play when all I'm doing is playing football and trying to help my teammate get extra yards?"

Those are good questions.

There are a lot of ways to describe Ward. I like Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's version: "Hines plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. ... He's a football player first and a wide receiver second." Ward prefers former Ravens coach Brian Billick's description: " 'I hate the S.O.B., but I'd love to have him on my team.' "

But Ward a dirty player?

Sorry, I just don't see it.

Of all of Ward's many vicious blocks, the only one I can remember coming late and drawing a penalty was his hit on the Browns' Holly last season. Just about everything he does -- though unusually violent for a receiver -- is within the rules.

Of course, that didn't stop the NFL from fining Ward for "unnecessary roughness" on plays that weren't penalized in games against Jacksonville and Baltimore earlier this season. He doesn't think he'll be fined for the hit on Rivers, but who knows? If the league does fine him, it will stink of hypocrisy. That block is the type of brutal hit that makes the NFL game so popular. Rivers was sent flying; his feet must have been 10 feet off the turf. It's the type of play the league surely will market and sell on its 2008 Greatest Hits video.

"It was shoulder to shoulder," Ward said. "If I was a dirty player, I would have gone low on him. I easily could have taken out his leg. But my intentions weren't to hurt him. I just wanted to block him. I can't help that he broke his jaw when he hit the ground. I feel sorry that it was broken, but I don't feel sorry for what I did.

"No one ever sent me an apology note when I was hurt. Two years ago against Cleveland, Sean Jones hurt my knee with what I thought was a bad hit. Last year, [San Francisco's] Patrick Willis hit me directly on my knee. No one felt sorry for me ...

"I'm a 200-pound wide receiver. [Rivers] is a first-round linebacker out of USC. If I were him, I wouldn't want people talking about me being blocked like that. I'd be embarrassed about it."

Lost in the controversy surrounding Ward's big hit and fines is the fact he's having another superb season. He caught his fifth touchdown pass in the 38-10 victory against the Bengals, taking a cheap hit from safety Dexter Jackson long after he scored. Ward bounced up and grinned in Jackson's face as the officials called Jackson for a personal foul. "I knew that hit was coming," Ward said, shrugging.

Ward didn't take it personally.

"I hardly ever allow it to become personal," he said. "I can only think of one or two times in my career when I lost my cool and allowed it to be personal. I caught a touchdown pass in Seattle and spiked the ball in front of [Ken] Lucas. He had been grabbing me and talking all game. That was personal. After I hit [Earl] Little in Cleveland [in 2001], I stood over him because he called me a 'Chinaman [bleep]' a few plays earlier. I said to him, 'How do you like that from a Chinaman [bleep]?' I know I shouldn't have done it and I deserved that fine.

"But these fines this year? I didn't do anything wrong. I just played football."

And if the opponents disagree?

"If I'm in their head and they're worried about me, I figure I've won already," Ward said.

In the game against the Ravens last season when Ward drilled Scott, he also sent All-Pro safety Ed Reed flying with a block. "The next few plays, all he cared about was getting back at me," Ward said. "He didn't care about his responsibilities. That's not helping his team. That's helping my team."

I'm thinking Ward will be ready for the Giants' best shots Sunday and the Washington Redskins' the next week and the Bengals', Ravens' and Browns' down the road.

Certainly, they had better be ready for his best.

"I'm not going to allow this silly [stuff] to change the way I play," Ward said.

Nor should he.

Tomlin's point is worth repeating one more time:

Hines plays the game the way it's supposed to be played ...


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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