Ward revels in victory vs. hometown team
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You think you know the best part of Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward's game Sunday at Heinz Field?
I'll bet you don't.
It wasn't his six catches in a 15-9 overtime win against the Atlanta Falcons, giving him 901 receptions for his Hall of Fame-caliber career. It wasn't his 108 receiving yards, the 26th 100-yard game of his career, breaking the franchise record he shared with Hall of Famer John Stallworth and pushing him over 11,000 yards for his career. It wasn't the block he threw on safety Thomas DeCoud to help spring running back Rashard Mendenhall for his 50-yard winning touchdown run. It wasn't even the win itself, important as it was because it got the Steelers out of the gate 1-0 in the first of the four games it will play without suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"I finally can say I beat Atlanta."
His hometown team.
"I couldn't sleep [Saturday night] thinking about it," Ward said. "I woke up at 6 in the morning and asked myself, 'How much different would my career have been if the Falcons had drafted me?' And then, 'Why didn't they draft me?' "
That second question ate at Ward. It probably has eaten at the Falcons a few times over the years, too. In the 1998 NFL draft, they selected Miami wide receiver Jammi German in the third round with the 74th pick before the Steelers picked Ward with the 92nd pick even though Ward had been a collegiate star at nearby Georgia. German had 20 catches for 294 yards and three touchdowns in his career and was gone from the NFL after the '01 season.
Ward hasn't forgotten.
He never forgets.
"I love it when he plays with a chip on his shoulder," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said.
This particular chip always has been huge. When the Steelers played the Falcons to a 34-34 tie at Heinz Field in '02, Ward had 11 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown. When they were beaten, 41-38, by the Falcons in overtime in Atlanta in '06, he had eight catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns. Those performances were fabulous, but they didn't mean much because the Steelers didn't win.
This time, they did.
"An amazing victory," Ward gushed.
As usual, Ward was in the middle of all of it.
Who better to help lead young quarterback Dennis Dixon -- in for Roethlisberger -- to his first NFL win in just his second start? Ward had catches for 24 and 25 yards on consecutive plays to help set up teammate Jeff Reed's third field goal. Four of his catches went for first downs.
You think Dixon appreciated it?
You better believe it.
"I'm proud of him. He played his tail off," Ward said of Dixon. "I know Ben was home cheering for us. He's still our man. But he's not with us right now. Dennis is filling in in the captain's role and trying to keep this ship going."
Who better than Ward -- the NFL's best-blocking receiver -- to keep throwing blocks to help a running game that Arians kept leaning on to take some of that intense pressure off Dixon? Ward sealed off DeCoud just enough for Mendenhall to cut inside for the decisive score.
"We kept pounding it and pounding it," Ward said. "At times, I got angry about it ... "
The man is a wide receiver, right? They like to catch passes. Lots of passes.
"[Wide receiver] Mike Wallace came to me at one point and said, 'All we do is run the ball,' " Ward said, grinning. "I told him, 'We've got to run it.' We didn't want to put too much on Dennis and we also had bad field position all day."
That doesn't mean that Ward wasn't ready when Arians called his number. You're probably thinking what I'm thinking: He's always ready. But to go over 900 catches and 11,000 receiving yards in the same game?
"It's like Forrest Gump. I can't explain it," Ward said. "I'm 34 years old and every year, regardless of what people say, it's my mindset that I have to go out and prove the naysayers wrong. That's my motivation."
No wonder Arians said, "My biggest job is to keep finding chips for him. I can't send him out after records anymore. He's got all those now."
Not bad for a man shunned by his hometown Falcons.
Not bad for a man drafted behind German.
More than 12 years later, Ward still is going strong.
"I seem to amaze myself," he said.
The rest of us, too.
First Published September 13, 2010 12:00 am