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There were smiles and tears when Ward retired

March 20, 2012
Wide receiver Hines Ward retires

Just before Hines Ward began to address the gathered media on this day in 2012, he looked to the back of the room where James Harrison, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Jerome Bettis were sitting.

He smiled as he watched Harrison dab his eyes, a teasing reference knowing that it wouldn't be long until Ward would soon need a tissue.

"No (James), I am not going to cry," said Ward, who throughout his 14-year career showed that he wore his emotions on his sleeve. "I see he is testing me there already."

Just minutes after he began to speak that day, acknowledging that yes this was it, he talked about his love for the fans. As he started in, you got the feeling that it wouldn't be long before Harrison would be right.

"These past few weeks I've spent a lot of time reading thousands of emails, Facebook posts, tweets, letters, cards and well wishes from fans everywhere," said Ward, partially reading from a prepared statement, partly speaking from the heart. "As I read them, I was really moved by the tremendous outpouring of love, encouragement and support from everybody, everywhere. It really got to me. Through it all, I realized there is only one thing that I love more than the game of football, and that's Steelers Nation."

And with that, Ward couldn't hold it in any longer. He got choked up and the tears that he tried so hard to hold back flowed.

"When I think about football, I think about Steeler Nation and the fans," said Ward, his voice cracking as he paused as he just couldn't keep it in. "For all the fans for years that camped out in the parking lots on game days, in the freezing rain and snow. For all the fans that traveled all over the world, nationwide and across the country to cheer us on. The ones wearing my jersey in Denver, New York and Baltimore, and every city I've ever played in. It is truly amazing. Without their support over the past 14 years, this game wouldn't mean the same to me. It wouldn't be as fun for me. You guys meant the world to me. This city and this organization mean the world to me. So today, as sad as it feels for me right now, I hope today will be a good day for everybody.

"Today I came back to Pittsburgh to grant Steelers Nation its one last request. Today, I am officially retiring as a Pittsburgh Steeler."

Ward epitomized what a Steelers player is. He played with heart and emotion, with intelligence and fierceness, and with a love for the game that showed through the ever-present smile on his face.

"There has been some interest from other teams, but I just couldn't picture myself playing in any other uniform," said Ward. "I wouldn't feel right. I've been here for 14 years. I just couldn't fathom myself putting on another uniform, because I know the passion I displayed out on the field, it wouldn't be the same.

"I couldn't fathom seeing myself in anything but black and gold. Look at my tie. I want to go down as one of the greats to wear the black and gold. That's how it should end."

Ward said he sought advice from Bettis and was thrilled to have the former running back surprise him by flying in for the press conference.

"A couple of days before I came up here, I really just asked him about it all, the whole process," said Ward, who is a member of the Steelers Hall of Honor. "I asked would I miss football? 'Of course you will miss it,' he said. 'You've been doing it your whole life.' For me, it's not worth it to go out and play one or two years for another organization, because deep down inside me, my love wouldn't be there. Jerome has been my big brother, helping me get through it all.

"All-in-all, I can say I am a Steeler for life. That's the bottom line. That's all I've really ever wanted. It's bittersweet but it was the right thing to do. For me to put on another uniform, and just hearing the outpouring from fans and Steelers Nation, that meant more to me than anything. That's why I made the decision that I did today."

Ward, the Steelers third-round draft pick in 1998, walked away from the game as the Steelers all-time leading receiver with 12,083 yards and 1,000 receptions.

He also walked away from the game with his head held high, a man at peace with his decision.

"As much as I will miss football, my teammates, coaches and everything about the game, I don't want to play it in any other uniform," said Ward. "The black and gold runs deep in me, and now I will remain a Steeler for life."

With those words, the tears were gone, and the ever-present Hines Ward smile was back.