On the Steelers: Ward puts ring on mentoring
Workers put up a picture of Steelers receiver Hines Ward outside Cowboys Stadium in preparation for Super Bowl XLV Sunday in Arlington, Texas.
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DALLAS -- This is old hat to "Old Money". Super Bowls? Yes, that too, this being the third for Hines Ward, but he has been mentoring young receivers much longer, since he himself was Young Money.
He mentored rookie Plaxico Burress when Ward was just two seasons ahead of him. Mentored Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed. Never, though, has he had such a group as this: second-year receiver Mike Wallace and rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, collectively known as "Young Money".
His words to them ring the same as those he spoke to Burress a decade ago.
"Just be accountable on and off the field," said Wallace, who knows them by heart. "You don't want to put yourself in bad situations because you don't want to embarrass your family, your friends, your teammates.
"On the field be accountable because you don't want to leave your teammates hanging -- you know, get somebody hurt. Make sharp plays, when it could be a touchdown rather than being out there being lazy or not worried about it because you're out there for yourself."
Ward did not wait to see Sanders before he began offering his Hines Way tutorial.
"Hines called me right after I got drafted. He told me 'All right, you have to come up here and work, you have to be willing to block, that's the Pittsburgh way.' I told him I'll do whatever I can to get on the field and help the team win."
Sanders soaked it all in, in the spring, at training camp, all season long.
"You're talking about a 13-year vet, one of the toughest receivers in the game -- ever in my eyes. Not only that, he's smart. He understands the defenses, he understands what the defensive back is thinking, what the linebacker is thinking.
"For me to have an opportunity to come in as a rookie and learn from him -- ohh, just to get under his wings is definitely a lesson and I've been trying to take full advantage."
Ward talked to them before the playoffs began, told the Young Money trio what to expect, what it all meant, told them how everything is magnified, how one third-down catch is worth 15 third-down catches in the regular season. Wouldn't you know that Brown, who caught only 16 passes in the regular season, made the two most important third-down catches in Steelers postseason history, one each near the end to virtually seal victories against the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets.
"I always get a feed off him," said Brown, when asked in Pittsburgh if Ward had yet told the youngsters what to expect in their first Super Bowl visit. "I sit right next to him at meetings. I'm pretty sure he's just going to be talking about keeping your focus sharp. You know what I mean, stay in tune for the game and know what we're here for.
"We're not going there to get caught up in events or distractions, we're going there to win the ballgame. I'm pretty sure he's going to be stressing that and making sure we know our assignments and are error-free."
It bothered Ward that Burress did not always heed his advice, really bothered him when at the first practice after Burress signed his rookie contract a few days late that coach Bill Cowher put Burress (first-round pick in 2000) and Troy Edwards (first-round pick 1999) in the starting lineup. Ward, who led them in receiving in 1999, steamed. He would soon get his starting job back and go on to lead them in receiving every season since except for this one.
Later in the 2000 season, he spotted Burress walking around the team's facility without his playbook. "Where's your playbook?" Ward asked him. Burress told him he only carried it on Thursdays.
"You carry your playbook all the time," Ward told him.
Sanders, standing in front of his locker, was asked the same question the other day. The rookie pointed to a knapsack near his feet that contained his playbook.
"He kind of baby-sat us," Sanders said. "At first, we didn't even understand the playbook and how to set it up because each week we have a different game plan. He told us keep that playbook with you all the time. Go home and study your plays because that's going to help us in the long run."
Although Young Money and Old, they are kindred spirits. Ward still carries the chip on his shoulder that has the words burned into it "third-round draft pick." Wallace and Sanders were also third-rounders and Brown was drafted in the sixth round.
Those are a lot of chips on a lot of receivers' shoulders in the Steelers locker room.
"Yeah, we get to talk a lot and just say we all got overlooked and we're going to make them pay," Wallace said. "So we all feel together on that because we all feel we should have been top 10 picks."
"That's what drives us as players," Brown said. "We don't play this game for fun, we play this game with a chip on our shoulder. All the things I went through off the field drives me on the field to make people believe. That' the hunger and drive you want as a player."
It continues to drive Ward in his 13th season and Wallace hopes it will drive him that long as well, the fact he was overlooked in the first two rounds of the draft.
"Hopefully, I'll be the only one still standing, like Hines. You always want to let people know you were just as good if not better than those guys.
"But that's the past, that's the draft, that was two years ago. I'm in the Super Bowl."
Revenge can have its own reward.