On the football field, Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is a proven performer, unafraid to tangle with the secondary. But can he tango?
That's the big question for Steelers Nation, as well as fans of ABC's wildly popular reality competition "Dancing With the Stars." Mr. Ward was named Monday as one of 11 celebrity contestants in the March 21 Season 12 premiere.
He wasn't available Tuesday for comment, but he told USA Today: "All the former NFL guys have done fairly well, so hopefully I can carry on that tradition. We're a bunch of prideful men in the NFL, so I don't want to be known as that guy who got kicked off first."
The stars' names were announced live during an episode of the network's "The Bachelor." Each will be paired with a professional dancer; these will be revealed this morning on ABC's "Good Morning America."
In some circles, examination of the pairings is as big a science as NFL draft day. One website, PureDWTS.com, posts a fluctuating chart that recently had Mr. Ward, 34, paired with Kym Johnson, one of the professional dancers. This, of course, is mere speculation, although the site correctly predicted Mr. Ward's selection as a contestant more than a week ago.
"Finally, the cat's out of the bag!" Mr. Ward, who met his dancing partner late last week, said in a Twitter message. "I don't know what I got myself into but I want to win that Mirror Ball Trophy. I can't say who my partner is going to be yet, but let's just say -- she's the bomb :)
"I'm excited to compete outside of my comfort zone. Steeler nation, I hope you guys cheer me on and vote for me so I can bring this trophy home to the City of Champions."
Mr. Ward, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery just after the Steelers' Super Bowl loss to Green Bay, will have had roughly a month of recovery by the time the first show airs.
Executive producer Deena Katz said the show made an exception for Mr. Ward, whom they first contacted in November: "Honestly, we were going to take a season off from football. Football players do so great on the show, but we wanted to take a break ....
"But then we started watching Hines, and the Super Bowl, and I know Hines is a fan of the show. And suddenly I cannot go another year without putting him on the show."
Ms. Katz said agents pitch their clients all the time, but for this cycle, "we went after him. We were taking Hines or nobody."
In 11 seasons, "Dancing With the Stars" has featured everyone from notorious politicians (former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay) to actors (John O'Hurley, Mario Lopez) to famous people's children (Bristol Palin).
But athletes do particularly well, especially football players. Previous dancers include winner Emmitt Smith, runners-up Jason Taylor (a Turtle Creek native) and Jerry Rice, as well as Chad Ochocinco, Warren Sapp and Kurt Warner.
George Novak, who coached Mr. Taylor at Woodland Hills High School, said he wasn't surprised. Mr. Taylor "is athletic, and football players, they have great feet."
Judith Conte, a teaching professor in dance at Carnegie Mellon University's school of drama, said that athletes can take direction.
"A football player or a boxer is used to being told to 'make sure you step here. Make sure you step there. Why are you running this way?' "
Athletes have stamina and tone, but often more bulk than the ideal dancer, she said: "The key is to be able to have length, fluidity, extension. That smooth kind of toned muscle, as opposed to 'gripped' muscle look ... muscles at the ready like a lion about to pounce."
Ms. Conte said dancers are "unsung athletes ... because we train our bodies, our musculature to be able to repeat certain kinds of physical tasks that need to come naturally after you've repeated it so many times, so you almost don't have to think about it."
Previous seasons of "Dancing With the Stars" have been punctuated by injuries, especially during the three weeks of training before the premiere.
"On so many levels, athletes have the advantage," Ms. Katz said. "They know their bodies, they never overtrain, they know how to be coached well. They know when enough is enough and when to push themselves."
Two other pro athletes are part of this season's lineup -- welterweight boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and WWE wrestler Chris Jericho.
Rounding out the diverse cast is model Petra Nemcova, actor Ralph Macchio ("The Karate Kid"), radio host Mike Catherwood, rapper Romeo and former Hugh Hefner live-in playmate and reality star Kendra Wilkinson.
Television talk show host Wendy Williams and Chelsea Kane of the Disney Channel's "Jonas" are also hoofing it, but perhaps the best-known among the contestants is actress Kirstie Alley.
During the live announcement, Ms. Alley suggested the contestants' focus would be to "try not to fall on our butts the first week out. That's what I'm going for."
A trio of judges has influence on deciding who stays or goes, but viewer voting is crucial. And the Steelers Nation is vast -- the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's website tracks readers from across the globe.
It's certainly a popular program; last November's season finale drew 26.4 million viewers for the last half-hour.
If he couldn't bring home the Lombardi Trophy this year, Mr. Ward said, perhaps the "Dancing With the Stars" mirror-ball award "would be a nice consolation prize."
Ms. Katz said she had high hopes for No. 86, who combines athletic prowess with grace and personality.
"I think Hines is more [of a dancer] like Emmitt Smith -- not too big, not too tall. I see a long run for Hines; he's got the charm and the smile."
Maria Sciullo: email@example.com or 412-263-1478. First Published March 2, 2011 5:00 AM