This is the era when just about everything accomplished on a football field is framed as an act of defiance: a football is spiked viciously; a breastbone is beaten repeatedly in thumping self-aggrandizement; a standard touchdown comes replete with posturing and screaming.
So let's remember this today: That is not how Hines Ward played football.
At the completion of perhaps the prettiest play in Super Bowl history, with Hines racing under an exquisite rollout pass from Antwaan Randle El to drown the Seattle Seahawks, the enduring emblem of Ward's career flashed blindingly into the annals of sports photography.
Oh my word, look at that beaming enamel as he carries the ball like a newborn into the Ford Field end zone. The NFL put it on a raft of official publications the next year; it was that iconic, that unusual.
Here's a guy playing football ... joyously!
Apparently it was still legal then.
So really, that's the era that ended Wednesday just short of dinner time, the era when football excellence could be conveyed as unrestrained fun rather than some dutiful execution of grim responsibility, some soulless quest for vengeance.
None of this will say the Steelers erred in any way when they released Ward after 14 seasons, but neither will it avoid the truth that they did indeed wipe the smile off their face.
"I gave my heart and soul to you every down," Ward said to Steelers fans in a statement that swiftly followed Art Rooney II's announcement that No. 86 won't be back. "And I will always bleed black and gold."
There were times, no doubt, in Ward's football career going back to the University of Georgia and before, when some told him he'd never amount to much, or certainly to anything close to the greatest pass catcher in the history of one of the NFL's pantheon franchises. Curiously, when people stopped saying things like that, Ward invented others to keep saying it.
No one was more driven by the dubious notion of disrespect than Ward. It was sometimes hard not to roll your eyes when Hines was telling you what "they" were saying he couldn't do -- whether it was some long forgotten draftnik or some panel judge on "Dancing With the Stars," and that's probably the source of his sharpest pain today. After all these years of doubters, real and imagined, his beloved Steelers joined the chorus Wednesday.
Now officially, it's not the position of anyone at 3400 South Water Street that Ward can't play anymore, but Ward will have a hard time constructing any other interpretation. He hasn't had a 100-yard game for the Steelers since Dec. 12, 2010, and he rarely was asked to help in crucial passing situations for most of the second half of '11.
Through that process, so foreign to Hines and so foreboding in a career's fast-approaching twilight, Ward never questioned his deployment nor the motives of any coach, executive, teammate or even of any phantom doubter.
Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, all Ward proteges, all are younger, swifter and consequently better suited to an offense that will now turn principally to Ben Roethlisberger for leadership. Even journeyman wideout Jerricho Cotchery was the club's preferred option to Ward in situations that prescribed four wideouts.
But there is little purpose in freeze-framing the end of Ward's professional life in Pittsburgh. The broad joyous picture dwarfs it, and the broad joyous picture focuses thusly: At the peak of Ward's career, the Steelers went to three Super Bowls in six years and twice were world champions; when he arrived in this town in 1998, the Steelers had been to only one Super Bowl in 18 years, and lost that one.
For the span of his tenure, Ward was a great example to young and old players alike on the matter of how to go about the brutal business of professional football. For the span of his tenure, he was approachable, thoughtful, civil and expert on the nature of his highly specialized discipline and the game at large.
For all the many opportunities to learn from him, I'll miss him dearly, as will most anyone with a pen or a microphone or a camera.
He was as tough as anyone on the field. He could be cheap. He could be dangerous. He could be wicked. All of that helped make him a standout in the theater of the merciless. Until one week short of his 36th birthday, there was never a football team that couldn't be better with Hines Ward.
My favorite Ward play came in Atlanta, a post route. Ward made the catch in stride, looked upfield toward what seemed like an acre of open carpet, and his burst took him right out of his shoe. No matter, he fled toward the end zone, one shoe off, one shoe on, joyously.
When the play ended he turned and smiled, that killer smile.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org First Published March 1, 2012 5:00 AM