Steelers' Hines Ward leads the NFL in receiving at the age of 33
Who would have imagined after six weeks of the season that Hines Ward would lead the NFL in receiving yards and be tied in receptions?
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On a gorgeous fall afternoon, Hines Ward left his workplace yesterday with a good three hours of sunlight remaining. Enough to get in a little golf?
"No," Ward, 33, said. "I'm going to go sleep in my hyperbaric chamber. It's my fountain of youth."
Who could argue? Ward not only is off to the fastest start of his 12-year career with the Steelers, but he also is atop the NFL receiving statistics this week. No Steelers receiver has ever led the league, but more than a third of the way through this season no one has more than Ward's 599 yards. He and Steve Smith of the New York Giants are tied for the league lead with 41 receptions.
At that rate, he'll catch 109 passes for nearly 1,600 yards.
"I would hope people would be proud of me," Ward said. "There's a guy 33 years old leading the league."
Ward earlier exposed the myth that a Steelers receiver could not break into the top echelon in the league when he caught 112 passes for 1,329 yards in 2002, both team records.
But that occurred when he was 26. Who saw this coming? Part of it has to do with coordinator Bruce Arians' open-air attack, part to the no-huddle offense, part to Ben Roethlisberger and also to Ward's ability to, well, stay young and healthy.
"I'm having the best time of my life," he said. "I'm having fun. This is definitely fun. I look forward to Sundays."
Ward kept the hyperbaric oxygen chamber that he credits with helping him return from a sprained MCL in his knee to play in the Super Bowl two weeks after it was injured in the AFC championship game. He said he gets into the thing four times a week, for preventive medicine, a.k.a. his fountain of youth.
He also had rotator cuff surgery on a shoulder after the 2008 season, but he's playing like new today.
"This is great. I'm having the most fun I had in 12 years because when I was younger, it was all about the stats and trying to make the money. Got the money, made the Pro Bowls. When I got closer to 10,000 yards that was like a milestone. I said if I get 10,000 I'm going to retire."
Of course, that did not happen after he hit 10,000 career yards this season. He's signed through 2012 and believes he could make it to the end of that contract.
"I'm still here," said Ward, who credits coach Mike Tomlin for giving him Wednesdays off at practice as another tonic. "When I retire is the day when I watch on film and say the Hines I know can beat this guy and then I can't get open on this guy. Then I'm done, because I don't want to end on that note. I want to go out on top."
He's on top of the NFL now. It looked as if the only Steelers receiver to have four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons would experience no more when he dipped below 1,000 between 2005-07, to a low of 732. But he rebounded with 1,043 yards last season and is blowing that away today.
His yards per reception also has increased, by nearly 2 yards over last season to 14.6, which would be the highest of his career as a starter.
"Not bad for a guy without speed, right?" Ward said.
He always has been somewhat of a possession receiver, playing next to deep threats such as Plaxico Burress and then Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington and now rookie Mike Wallace. But with the no-huddle has come some deeper routes for Ward, who has the team's longest reception of the season, a 52-yard touchdown against Cleveland, and another of 41 yards.
"People ask how long I will play, I don't know how long. It's just a great feeling to go out there and help contribute. All the guys -- Heath [Miller] is catching TDs and his stats are right up there, Santonio is on pace for 1,000 yards. Mike Wallace is coming in and giving us great splash plays. Ben is having a Pro Bowl year.
"It's great to be part of that mix because I wasn't supposed to be in the mix being I was 33."
Willie Parker won't argue with Tomlin's decision to give Rashard Mendenhall the brunt of the carries Sunday.
"He's the coach, he has to make a decision and live with it. He thinks that's the best for our offense right now and pretty much I have to prove him wrong. I'm cool with it."
Parker carried only seven times last Sunday after missing the previous two games with turf toe. Mendenhall has started the past three games and rushed for 304 yards and four touchdowns.
"I'm not all the way back," said Parker. "I'm not Willie Parker, I'm not myself right now."
Tight end Matt Spaeth apologized yesterday for getting into trouble with the law that helped spark teammate Jeff Reed's arrest Sunday night outside of McFadden's near Heinz Field.
Spaeth was cited for public urination. "I apologized for the distraction that it caused both to the organization and to my teammates," he said.
First Published October 22, 2009 12:00 am