At a glance, it seemed to be nothing more than the normal lunch time at the Steelers' practice facility. Based on what then happened about five hours later on that late February day, based on what that happening precipitated today, it deserves to be remembered as something more.
It was Monday, Feb. 27, 2012. Hines Ward had been in the building for a meeting with Steelers President Art Rooney II, and the team's entire personnel department was on site for a series of meetings following the NFL Scouting Combine. As Ward was finishing up, the personnel meeting was breaking up, and the flow of humanity took the group down the main hallway. What is most memorable about that moment was the sight of Hines Ward and Joe Greene smiling and talking as they walked past the Steelers' display of the franchise's six Lombardi trophies.
Joe Greene and Hines Ward. The player who started it all and a player who was critical to the renaissance, side-by-side, walking past the spoils their careers helped bring back to Pittsburgh.
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In professional sports, there are very few fairytale endings. There can be "living happily ever after," but getting there from the end of a career as a professional athlete typically contains some ugliness. In this particular situation, that ugliness came on Wednesday, Feb. 29, when the Steelers announced that they would release Hines Ward. Fourteen NFL seasons after using one of their third-round draft picks – the 92nd overall – to bring Ward to Pittsburgh from Georgia, team and player were finished. Make no mistake, it was a difficult decision, a decision accompanied by a sadness that typically has no place in the business of professional sports. But it had to be done. The realities of the NFL salary cap, and the cumulative physical toll of all of the hits over those 14 NFL seasons made it necessary. But Hines Ward was special, and that's why there was nothing typical about this.
That's why there was today.
Today, Hines Ward retired as a professional athlete. He announced his retirement at noon at the Steelers practice facility, in fact, he announced his retirement in a room adjacent to those six Lombardi trophies. He announced his retirement in a room bulging at the seams with cameras and recorders. Hines Ward decided he was finished playing professional football, but some part of this decision undoubtedly was that he didn't want to play any more professional football in a uniform other than the Steelers'.
There can be no arguing that Ward was special, and the 1,000 catches and the 12,083 yards and the 85 touchdowns that made him the most productive receiver in franchise history serve as evidence, yes, but those numbers also tell part of the story. Hines Ward was a legitimate tough guy. He was a teammate. He was a fierce and unapologetic competitor. He was, and is, a Steeler.
Hines Ward was tough enough to get a rule named after him because the league decided he was lighting up too many defensive players. He was a player who just didn't get tackled short of the first down marker. He found a way to get the ball into the end zone whenever he was within sight of the goal line. He covered kicks early in his career. He blocked to the whistle, sometimes he blocked through the whistle. He ran the ball like a fullback and blocked like pulling guard. He agitated and he aggravated, but it always was in an effort to set the kind of physical tone that has been a hallmark of this franchise. He was without question the toughest wide receiver of his era.
Hines Ward was a teammate, the kind of teammate who shed tears at the thought of Jerome Bettis ending his Steelers career without even one trip to a Super Bowl. He was the kind of teammate who would notice Ben Roethlisberger's apprehension about facing Steelers fans for the first time at training camp after the league's announcement of a six-game suspension and make the walk through the masses and down to the field side-by-side with his quarterback.
Hines Ward never shied away from hard work, and if his willingness to remind people of that was off-putting to some, that was also part of his charm. Ward played the no-respect card better and with more frequency than any professional athlete, and he stoked his own fire every summer by going through training camp with his last name written on a piece of tape across the front of his helmet, just as they probably did at Forest Park High School back when he was a schoolboy in Georgia. But this fueled his competitive nature, and that was Hines Ward's edge. Most times, he wanted it more than the other guy.
Hines Ward was a special player, but not anymore, and that's why his Steelers career had to end. But it also was because Hines Ward was such a special player that his Steelers career ended the way it did.