The Steelers cannot come close this week to duplicating the dramatic tale of Super Bowl XL, when they followed Jerome Bettis home to Detroit for his final game.
It's not the same. For one, Tampa, Fla., is not the hometown of Hines Ward, and he has no plans to make Super Bowl XLIII his final game. So, while there is no story that can equal the Bus' from three years ago, Ward's will do.
"He's the heart and soul of our group," tight end Heath Miller said.
It's not just that Ward, at 32, is an elder, that he holds virtually every team receiving record, that he plays wide receiver like a linebacker, or that he was MVP of their most recent Super Bowl win. It's all that and more, like crying unabashedly in front of television cameras the day after the Steelers lost the AFC championship game in the 2004 season because he thought it was the last for Bettis.
Or Ward's determination to help biracial kids in his native South Korea. Or by taking special interest in young teammates to show them the ropes.
Now, their offensive co-captain is hurt again as the Steelers prepare for another Super Bowl visit. They can only hope it turns out as well as it did the last time he was hurt before a Super Bowl.
"I'm staying positive," Ward said of the MCL sprain in his right knee. "The last time, I had an AC sprain, almost separated my shoulder in practice two days before the Super Bowl."
It happened on Friday in Pontiac, Mich., when he hit the ground trying to catch a pass.
"I was in a sling Friday night, Saturday night. Sunday morning, I took a shot and then played. I was in excruciating pain and ended up playing."
Ward threw up before the game, too, the first time he said that had happened. Then, he went out and caught a touchdown pass, won the game's MVP, helped the Steelers to a victory, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and went to Disney World -- and he took the Bus.
Now he's in pain again, trying to overcome an injury that occurred in the first quarter of the AFC championship game. A good omen, perhaps, for Ward and the Steelers?
"I don't sit there and wonder," Ward said. "God's purpose for me is greater than one game."
Players do not normally play two weeks after their MCL is sprained, but this is the Super Bowl, there are no games after this one and this is Hines Ward. Part of his double-time rehab means getting up through the night to take his treatment, including ice treatment, for about 35 minutes.
"I set my alarm for 1 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 7 o'clock," Ward said. "This whole week I'm trying to be as close to 100 percent as possible. I'm putting in overtime. I'm putting in double treatments, so hopefully it equals 2-3 weeks. I feel good, it doesn't hurt, I'm jogging around but I'm not going to push it hard."
Ward is one of those old-school players who will do anything to either stay on or get back onto the playing field. It was like watching Bettis take a shot to his groin that went awry before a 2001 playoff game against Baltimore.
"Me and Aaron Smith talk about it a lot," said veteran guard Kendall Simmons, on injured reserve and recuperating from a torn Achilles tendon. "There are not many of our types left, the old dinosaurs, that you know how to fight through stuff. Hines kind of exemplifies that. How Hines fights and stuff, makes you want to follow him, just seeing him do it. He's done so much stuff, it's ridiculous."
Bettis and Ward were friends during their eight seasons together with the Steelers, and they often took younger or newer teammates aside, not just to help them in football but to teach them the ropes of life in the NFL outside the chalk lines and meeting rooms. One of them was Willie Parker.
"He means a lot to this team, especially to me," said Parker. "Any big run I ever had I think he had a major impact on it, blocking.
"Off the field, he did that, too. If he thinks things are not right -- not only with me, but a lot of young boys -- he'll tell you. 'You can't be doing this or you can't be doing that.' He lets you know, 'Show love to people, take time out to sign autographs.' He took us under his wing."
It did not take coach Mike Tomlin long to take notice. He needs Ward in this game to win it.
"His spirit, the manner in which he plays the game, his willingness to sacrifice himself for this football team accounts for a lot that we do," Tomlin said.
Only four players have earned more than one Super Bowl MVP award, all of them quarterbacks. Only five wide receivers have won the award. Hines Ward is rehabilitating another injury; he has them right where he wants them.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published January 25, 2009 5:00 AM