As Hines Ward's role changed during the 2011 season, from a starting receiver to a role player, he often sought out the advice of former teammate and close friend Jerome Bettis on how to handle the change. Bettis shared words of wisdom with Ward, helping him to handle it with grace and dignity.
So it was no wonder that over the last few weeks, as Ward wrestled with his future, it was Bettis he once again turned to for advice, someone who can speak from experience.
Bettis walked away from the game in a manner few get to enjoy, retiring immediately after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL in his home city of Detroit, Michigan. He knew in his heart it was the right time.
When Ward shared his feelings about retirement with Bettis, telling him he felt torn because he thought he still had a few years left in him to play, but didn't want to wear another team's uniform after playing 14 seasons for the Steelers, Bettis once again helped Ward through the struggle.
"I told him his value was always going to be in Pittsburgh; that he would diminish his value going and playing somewhere else," said Bettis, moments after attending Ward's retirement press conference. "Long-term you leave a greater legacy walking away from the game in a situation like this as opposed to sticking around too long. Ultimately he had to come to terms with it himself. I just wanted to give him my thoughts on that particular issue. He understood it."
Bettis admits it's not just Steelers Nation that would have had a hard time seeing Ward wearing another uniform, he would have struggled with it as well.
"It would have been disappointing," said Bettis. "For a guy who played his entire career in Pittsburgh, has had so much success, who came from nowhere and reached the levels he has reached, it was fitting he stayed in a Steelers uniform only. It would have been heart-wrenching to see him play in another place."
Bettis understands what the Steelers organization means. He began his NFL career with the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams before being traded to the Steelers. Once he arrived in Pittsburgh, though, he knew he didn't want to go anywhere else, despite being offered more money elsewhere after his first season.
"You come here and see the love affair with a team," said Bettis. "Being in a unique position that I wore a different uniform in two different cities, and then I came to Pittsburgh and I saw how a city embraces a team, a love affair of a city and the team and the fans and their team. It's really unique. It's unlike any place in the country. I saw that.
"Once I came into the family I realized it was exactly that, a family. The atmosphere the Rooney family created was exactly that, a family. They believe in loyalty. The game of football doesn't allow for the ultimate loyalty, but they do a great job of being loyal to you while you are here, and even when you are gone. They appreciate what you have done for the organization. They stay loyal. That is so unique in this world of professional sports, not just football but professional sports overall that an organization would stay loyal. You are part of the family here and will always be a part of the family. That I can guarantee is unique if you look at any organization across the board."
So as Bettis sat back and listened to Ward speak, heard his emotional comments, he couldn't help but smile knowing he will forever be a Steeler.
"He has meant everything to this team," said Bettis. "He has been a rock. He had the work ethic, the physical mentality that really embraced everything the Steelers are about – hard-nosed, physical. He represented that. He was an offensive player, but when you think about the Steelers you think about defense and you still think about physical guys like Hines Ward.
"He has been the guy who has been able to bridge the older Steelers with the younger Steelers. I think because of him the younger guys appreciate the older guys more."