By Teresa Varley
A smiling Dante Ways walked up to Hines Ward, handed him a thank you note and then the six-year old gave him a hug. And the reason was simple. Once again, Ward was coming through to make life special for him.
Ways was among a group of people treated to a Thanksgiving feast that Ward provided at his restaurant South Side 86. It was the second time Ways got to meet Ward, having been partnered with him for Project Bundle-Up shopping about a month ago.
"It's so special, especially for my son Dante," said Erica Ways. "He loves Hines Ward. We are so blessed with this opportunity. This is very special. It's wonderful to see all of the families enjoying themselves. Some of the kids are never going to forget it."
Ward had always been active on Thanksgiving, helping to serve food at local homeless shelters. But this year he decided to take it to another level and provide the meals himself.
So he teamed with the Salvation Army and opened up his restaurant to families from the Homeless Family Crisis Center and Homewood Brushton area that otherwise would have had meager meals on this special day.
"This is a wonderful avenue of service he is doing," said Major Gene Foster of the Salvation Army. "These people are in need of a good Thanksgiving dinner. They wouldn't be eating what we are eating without his help. This is very important for these families to see that someone really cares, that Hines Ward and the Salvation Army teamed up.
Ward, who was named the Steelers 2008 Walter Payton Man of the Year, paid for the meals which were cooked by Big Mamma's House of Soul. And there was plenty to go around, as everyone had full stomachs and smiles on their faces as the plates were cleared.
"This year has been a blessed year for me," said Ward. "I wanted to do something, serve some families for Thanksgiving. I felt thankful for a lot of things in my life and it's a way for me to give back. It's great to bring the families here. I want to give them a Thanksgiving, something they can hopefully cherish and remember.
"We are very blessed to be in the position we are. The economy and the way it is it's tough on a lot of families. Any time you can bring a smile to someone on a special day it's always good."
Ward was joined by many of his Steelers teammates, including Heath Miller, Nate Washington, Deshea Townsend, Limas Sweed, Carey Davis, Jeff Reed, Dallas Baker, Martin Nance and Marvin Allen as well as receivers coach Randy Fichtner.
"It's always great to get out in the community," said Townsend. "Hines is doing a great thing by offering his restaurant and time. I wanted to be a part of it and support him. We are able to give back with our time. It's great to see how happy everyone is. Their situation is much worse than yours, but to help them not worry about it for a moment is worthwhile. To provide them a getaway from what is really going on in their life, to make them forget about it for just a second really makes you happy."
Ward feels that he is blessed to be living out his dream of playing in the NFL and for him to give something back he thinks is the least that he can do.
"The city has given me so much and embraced me," said Ward. "It's like family. It's great to be able to help out and contribute.
"To be able to make an impact on people's lives is what you hope for. I learned from Jerome (Bettis) if you can impact one person's life or bring a smile to their face then you have done your job."
All he had to do is take one look at Dante Ways to know, his job is complete.