Could lockout force exits for Ward, Farrior?
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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Between them, Hines Ward and James Farrior have played 450 combined games leading up to Super Bowl XLV Sunday night.
And not just any 450 games.
Because they have been with the Steelers, the stakes have been higher, the hits harder, and the relentlessly punishing style of both players surely has taken an extra toll on Ward's 34-year-old body and Farrior's 36-year-old body.
Time to retire?
Though there has been many questions to that effect this week, the unwavering answer from both is the same: Not yet.
"This is probably the first year in the past three or four that I'm finally healthy at this point and able to play in the postseason," Ward said at the Steelers' media session at Texas Christian University. "I feel good. Whenever that time comes, trust me, I'll let you guys know. I don't foresee this being my last game."
"I think about it in the offseason," Farrior said of retirement, "but, when I'm playing football, it never crosses my mind. When you're playing football and thinking about that, it's time to retire. I still have the love for the game. I still have the same passion I had when I was a rookie. I plan on them having to kick me out of here for me to get off the field."
Sounds pretty convincing.
But what if the NFL and the players fail to achieve a new labor agreement, and the league, as so many believe, has a lockout for the 2011 season?
Ward and Farrior were able to maintain their excellent physical conditioning this past offseason -- Farrior actually taking his to a new level -- but doing so over an extended period can be as much of a challenge as taking a long break, then essentially starting over.
The most recent lengthy shutdown in professional sports came in 2004-05, when the NHL lost an entire season. The league gained a salary cap and unprecedented revenue sharing in the aftermath, but it also saw the mostly silent retirements of luminaries such as Ron Francis, Mark Messier, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens and Igor Larionov.
Ward acknowledged thinking about that angle.
"If they lock us out, this will be a lot of people's last game, because there won't be a season," Ward said. "But I'm not retiring. I'm not in the mood to retire. Until Mike Tomlin says he doesn't need my services anymore, I'm going to continue playing."
At the same time ...
"We know we don't have a lot of time left in our careers, especially with this lockout going on," Ward continued. "This may be the best opportunity we have at another one, so we appreciate it more."
Farrior's take: "I'm really not thinking about that. Not at all."
One way or another, the Steelers are entering this Super Bowl without any Jerome Bettis-style rallying cry, to win one for either of their two most treasured leaders, Ward with the offense, Farrior with the defense and, really, the whole team.
"Honestly, I don't know if they'd be comfortable saying we're going to win it for them under any circumstance," tight end Heath Miller said. "But that's part of what makes those guys great leaders. They're thinking about everyone else right now."
And that appears to be the approach: The Steelers have 25 players who have played in a Super Bowl, an incredible 18 who have won two championships, and the most commonly expressed focus is to win one for the kids.
"Our view, I think, is that it would be nicest to get a championship for those guys who haven't gotten one yet, to see their faces and be around that," veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "That's what's going to be special for a lot of us."
"It's like a dream come true for me to have a chance at a third ring," Ward said. "But for these younger guys like Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, that's extra special. I'm trying to focus more on them, calm the nerves, joke with them, so they can do less thinking and continue making plays for us like they've been all year."
"To me, this one's more for the younger guys," Farrior said. "And we've had a lot of contributions from young guys, which would make that even better."
If this were to be the final game for either -- or if such a concept ever found serious traction -- be sure that, even in a locker room filled with leader types, the sentiment would be felt.
"Leadership is not just somebody who's outspoken. It's someone who goes out there and gets it done," injured defensive end Aaron Smith said. "It's a professional who shows up everyday and gets the job done. We're very lucky to have those in those two guys."
"When I think of the definition of a leader, I think of James Farrior and Hines Ward," Miller said. "They've been in the battles, they've been playing for a long time, and they back up their words."
The youngsters speak even more glowingly.
"You can always go over to their houses, you're always comfortable around them, you can always talk to them," second-year guard Ramon Foster said. "None of our leaders have any egos. I don't know how it is with other teams, but I'm sure their leaders aren't like ours as far as how we interact with them. They're the same as you see them on the field, having fun and getting it done."
Between the two, Farrior is the overall "unquestioned leader," as Tomlin called him again Wednesday.
"It all starts with Potsy," Hampton said, using Farrior's nickname.
"Everybody goes to James Farrior's house," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "Everybody goes there for massages. Everybody goes there for Thanksgiving. Just to dinner. It's like, 'Where are we going tonight?' 'Well, we're going to Pot Dog's house. Bring some food. We're going to kick it with some chicken.' And he's a humble man. For a guy who's been playing so long, who's made so much money, usually guys are flamboyant. He's low-key. And that's what a lot of guys respect."
Ward and Farrior each expressed some pride in having held the Steelers together through quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's suspension, linebacker James Harrison's public feud with the NFL and several key injuries.
"It's been special because early in the season everybody really counted us out after we knew Ben was going to be out," Farrior said. "We were picked third in the division, behind Baltimore and Cincinnati. We heard that the best we could do is go 1-3. That put a little chip on our shoulders from the onset, and I think we've been fighting through that and other stuff all season."
"It was tough at times, but here we are," Ward said. "Yeah, that's part of what makes this great. When we've fallen back or had some adversity, we've responded to it right away. I think we did a phenomenal job of that, actually."
Even so, both sound far more eager to get credit for winning Sunday because of their role as players.
"Oh, it would mean the world to me. To win a third world championship, that's something you should only be able to dream about," Farrior said. "Yeah, we have a lot of old guys, including myself, out there. But like I tell all the other guys: We're like fine wine. We get better with age. So, hopefully, this will be one of our finer games."
"To have the opportunity to win a third Super Bowl? That's legendary," Ward said. "Only a select few can say that. I'm very blessed to have the opportunity, and I hope we win. That'll be crazy."