Hines Ward couldn't help but laugh as he listened to some of his coaches as well as current and former teammates share stories about him. After all, it's what he expected when he found out former Steelers cornerback Mel Blount chose him as the honoree at the 12th Annual Mel Blount Youth Home Celebrity Roast.
So it came as no surprise when one of the things he was teased about was his emotions, particularly the tears he shed when he thought Jerome Bettis was ready to pack it in after the 2004 season fell short of a Super Bowl journey.
Bettis was among those taking some good-natured jabs at Ward, along with Coach Mike Tomlin, quarterbacks Coach Randy Fichtner and teammates Jeff Reed and James Farrior. Other former Steelers players were also on hand, along with Steelers President Art Rooney II.
And while the evening definitely had a fun tone, there was more to it than just laughs.
Since his retirement from football Blount has been a staple in the Pittsburgh community, starting the Mel Blount Youth Home of Pennsylvania, a multi-service treatment program for young males who are victims of child abuse and neglect. The home is nestled on 300 acres in Washington County, with dormitories to house the residents, recreational facilities and programs to help the development of the young males.
One of the reasons Blount chose Ward as this year's honoree is his commitment to the Pittsburgh community and beyond. Blount appreciates the fact that Ward is a player who understands the importance of giving back and of being a role model. And in turn, Ward looks at Blount as a player who paved the way for today's Steelers to give back.
Ward is no stranger to helping young people who have faced difficulty in life. Through the Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation he has Ward hosted bi-racial kids from Korea in Pittsburgh for a weekend, helping them escape the discrimination they have faced and showing them there are other opportunities out there.
"We are all passionate about something," said Ward. "Just to see all of the hard work Mel put in to it and gives back to these kids is amazing. He has a passion for his youth home."
Ward saw that passion first hand when he had the chance to visit the youth home and was impressed with every aspect of it, from the facilities to the respectful attitude from those staying there.
"It was overwhelming," said Ward. "I didn't expect what I saw. Being from the city I didn't know what to expect. Mel is from the country. He wears his cowboy hat. This is a real big country dude. He had spurs on, big belt, big hat. It's the first time I experienced being somewhere like that. It was peaceful. To meet these kids from a troubled background, they were really respectful. It caught me off guard. It was great to see that. They were so well-behaved and well-mannered. It was a great. Mel has a passion about helping troubled teens."
Ward told the crowd gathered at the Pittsburgh Hilton Hotel how important it was for him to follow in the tradition of the players before him, both on and off the field. One of his favorite things is seeing some of the former players come by the team's practice facility or Heinz Field for a game, including Lynn Swann, who served as the emcee for the evening, as well as Franco Harris and Blount.
"Any time I wear the uniform I play for the players before me," said Ward. "I try to represent myself and the players before me. It's a special connection. It's always great to see guys come back. You feel like you are a part of history with those guys, especially having Super Bowl rings like they do.
"Each and every Sunday when I put on a uniform, I am playing for the guys who played before me. I am going to play until the wheels fall off."
While many walked away from the evening with a smile on their face and laughing at the fun stories, Ward walked away with much more. He walked away with pride.
"I understand what it means to be a true Pittsburgh Steeler," said Ward. "Being honored at the dinner means something because it reflects what I do outside of football too. Even though we are not paid to be role models, we are role models."