Ward gushes over Obama, mourns S. Korean ex-president's death

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It was a Memorial Day weekend Hines Ward will never forget -- from the White House to the Blue House.

Hours after the president of the United States declared the Steelers wide receiver "the happiest man in football," Ward's feelings turned to sadness when he learned of another president's death half a world away. Roh Moo-hyun, who called Ward a "hero" in spring 2006 after they lunched together in the Blue House home of the South Korean president, committed suicide when the former president jumped off a mountain cliff overlooking his home Saturday.

"My mom shed a tear because she has a picture of me, my mother, the president and his wife," Ward said after another Steelers spring practice yesterday.

It was Roh to whom Ward made an appeal three years ago to rid South Korea of its laws and attitudes against racially mixed people, of which Ward was one. He was born in South Korea and moved with his mother to the United States 32 years ago.

Ward's return to South Korea with his mother in April 2006 came two months after his Super Bowl MVP performance in the Steelers' victory against Seattle. Koreans mobbed him on a trip to Seoul that he scheduled long before he became a Super Bowl hero. He combined it to set up his charitable foundation to try to bring social justice to his native country, prompting Roh to say: "You came back a hero. Children growing up in South Korea can have big dreams by watching Hines Ward."

Roh, who left office last year, was embroiled in a bribery scandal when he committed suicide.

"To have the tragedy happen, it hits home to me," said Ward, who postponed his annual trip to South Korea this year after his mother had successful heart surgery. "Everything I remember about the first trip, he was very involved with the situation and involved with me helping getting my foundation started.

"It's a sad day in Korea and I know my mom is very disturbed about it."

Mother and son spent part of Memorial Day watching news of the former South Korea president's death on a Korean channel. It was a striking dichotomy for Hines Ward's extended holiday weekend.

First, President Barack Obama called him football's happiest man during a public speech Thursday as he greeted the Super Bowl champion Steelers on the South Lawn of the White House. Then Ward found himself stuffing USO care packages next to the president for nearly half an hour, chit-chatting with him.

"That was awesome," said Ward. "I was just ecstatic. I was like a little kid, I want every photo op. I'm on his right side -- for 30 minutes I was President Obama's right-hand man!"

What kind of small talk does one have for 30 minutes with a sitting president?

"I asked him about his basketball skills, was he a basketball player and stuff like that," Ward said. "He called me the happiest guy in the NFL and we both chuckled about it. ... I asked him: 'Is there any downtime for the president?' I'm thinking the president works 24 hours in a day. He told me the little downtime he had.

"I asked him about his kids, how they were relating, how they are reacting to the whole as far as you being president, because they're young. About his wife. I've heard he likes Burger King, so I asked him, 'One day I heard a story when you actually stood in line.' He loves Burger King."

They talked mainly about sports, back and forth.

"I was nervous. Getting a chance to kick it with the president for 20 or 30 minutes was awesome, something I will cherish the rest of my life. ... I tried to hold back from saying something silly, saying something stupid."

Yesterday, it was back to the normal stuff -- a spring practice with the Super Bowl champs. Ward has not practiced this year because of shoulder surgery, acting more as a coach. He expects to go through training camp.

Sometimes, Ward, who has met four presidents from the United States and South Korea and earned two Super Bowl rings, has to pinch himself.

"It's like Forrest Gump, man," he said. "I can't explain my career, how it started, never would I have guessed I would meet [two] presidents of Korea and [two] presidents of America. It's just crazy to me."

NOTE -- The Steelers will receive their Super Bowl rings June 9 in a private ceremony inside Heinz Field.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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