The telephone call came one night last week.
"Mr. Ward, this is the White House calling. I just want you to know that you're President Obama's guy ... "
You think Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is happy when he catches a touchdown pass? This was a whole new level of joy. We're not talking about service to your NFL team here. Man, we're talking about service to your country.
Ward is one of 16 people to be appointed to President Barack Obama's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He will be sworn in at a ceremony tonight at the U.S. Capitol. The commission works to improve the quality of life and opportunities for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by providing advice to the president, as well as to education secretary Arne Duncan and commerce secretary Gary Locke.
"Imagine the president picking me to be a face of Asian Americans all over the world. Me? Me?" Ward said, grinning the grin that you see every time the Steelers play. "I thought it was a huge honor when they told me I was going to be one of the candidates. But I never thought I'd actually be picked."
Ward is a future Hall of Famer. He owns virtually every Steelers pass receiving record and, in his 13th NFL season, still is going strong. He has been a part of two Super Bowl-winning teams and was MVP of Super Bowl XL.
But the best thing about Ward is how he's using his celebrity as a professional athlete to help Asian Americans, here and in his native Korea. What good is fame and fortune if you can't use it to benefit others? After Super Bowl XL, Ward started the Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation, which assists mixed-race children who face discrimination. He's making sure that a problem many want to keep quiet gets plenty of attention.
"I lived through what those kids are living through," Ward said. He was born to a Korean mother and an African American father in 1976 in Seoul, South Korea. "It's amazing that they're still facing discrimination," Ward said. "It's almost like the stuff that was happening in the '70s and the '60s. Maybe it isn't that bad, but it's still there."
Ward gave $1 million to start his foundation. He has returned to Korea each offseason since 2006 to mentor biracial children. He also brings Korean kids to stay with American families for a week each football season.
"It's all about building self-confidence," Ward said. "A lot of these kids have self-esteem issues. Many are considered outcasts where they live. I know what they're going through. I experienced some of the same things they are. I just want to show them that they can turn the negativity into a positive and be successful in life."
"I just want you to know that you're President Obama's guy ... "
That's the really neat thing, that Ward's good work is being noticed by people in the highest places. On at least two occasions, Obama called his ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney, who also owns the Steelers, to ask about Ward. Here's guessing Rooney gave him some endorsement.
"He's a terrific person," Rooney said of Ward before the Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans Sunday, 19-11. "This is a wonderful honor for him and a wonderful honor for our organization."
Rooney is returning to Ireland and won't be able to attend the ceremony in Washington tonight. But he shared a story about being together with Tae Yong Cho, the Republic of Korea's ambassador to Ireland. "I asked him if he knew Hines Ward," Rooney said. "He said everybody in Korea knows Hines Ward."
Sort of like Pittsburgh, right?
Don't worry about all of this affecting Ward's day job. Today is the Steelers' day off. He will return to Pittsburgh right after the ceremony. He said he won't have any problem serving two bosses.
Ward's football goal -- aside from at least one more Super Bowl ring, of course -- is 1,000 career catches. Watching him reach it should keep Steelers coach Mike Tomlin happy. Ward went over 900 in the Steelers' opening-game win against the Atlanta Falcons.
Ward's humanitarian goal is what he called "enlightenment" of biracial kids. Watching him deliver on that should keep Obama happy. Who better to spread the word than a famous NFL player?
Football and humanitarianism.
"What a combination," Ward said, grinning again.
What a decent man.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.