Hines Ward celebrates a touchdown against the Houston Texans with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during a 2008 game at Heinz Field.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger includes himself among Hines Ward's fans who hated to see him go, and wonders how the Steelers group of wide receivers will turn out in 2012.
Unable to reach him last night, Roethlisberger left Ward a message on his cell phone, "letting him know 'thank you for everything.' I'll miss him, I know we'll all miss him and it was awesome to play with him," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today.
The team announced the impending release of their venerable 14-year all-time receiving leader on Wednesday, and Ward reiterated his desire to play somewhere in 2012. That prompted Roethlisbeger to recall two of his favorite players growing up and how they played elsewhere at the ends of their Hall of Fame careers -- and maybe how it might end for him some day.
"Hines is Black and Gold," Roethlisberger declared. "I see him and wonder what it'll be like for me late in my career, things like that. It's hard. Two of my favorite players growing up, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, they're still 49ers. Hines will always be a Steeler."
Roethlisberger recalled what Ward meant to him, starting with the quarterback's rookie season in 2004 and over eight years together.
"He was Hines Ward, one of the best receivers in the game. I got a chance to be in the huddle with him and Jerome Bettis. He made me better. It didn't matter if I threw a good ball or a bad ball, 99 percent of the time he'd catch it, whether it was with one hand, off a helmet, or off a defender. He made me a much better quarterback and player. That's why I wanted to call him and thank him. If I see him I'll tell him."
There were some rough instances through the years at times between the two, most publicly when Ward expressed his surprise and disappointment on national television that Roethlisberger did not play in Baltimore on Nov. 29, 2009 because of a concussion, even though the quarterback practiced almost all week.
Roethlisberger waved that off and said the two remained close.
"I know Hines, I know he's emotional, I know he didn't mean it to come out that way," Roethlisberger said. "We talked; there are probably things we both said about each other that was based on pure emotion. I don't think it ever made a statement about how we felt about each other, at least not from me and I hope not from him.
"I wouldn't say we were best friends and hung out every day. We went to dinner. We got along great. I call him a friend. I told him I love you like a brother. From my side, I thought he was a great person, a great friend and a great teammate. I never had a problem with Hines."
Roethlisberger registered a little concern about how his receiving corps will shake out in the end. An ESPN report citing a source close to Mike Wallace says the Steelers, as has been expected, will not franchise the wide receiver but issue him the top restricted free agent tender. That roughly $2.7 million, one-year contract tender will give Wallace the chance to solicit offers from other teams. If he gets one and signs it, the Steelers have the right to match the contract and keep him, or pass on it and receive a first-round draft pick from the other team in return.
Also, veteran Jerricho Cotchery, who played Ward's role on the field for much of the second half of last season, is an unrestricted free agent. The only other receivers left on the roster from last season are Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, who completed their second seasons.
"You hope that we get Mike back," Roethlisberger said. "I think Emmanuel is healthy, and we have Antonio. You have three really young guys.
"Without Hines, I think you have to do everything you can to sign Jerricho back. He's not only a veteran leader in that room but a really good player. I'd love to see him come back because he's a really good receiver and I like what he brings to the team.
"Another question is, do we have those four? All we have is Antonio and Emmanuel, technically only two. But if it's those four, I'll take that every day in the week."