Hines Ward's last down
By J. Brady McCollough / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
All over the region, silence fell.
On television sets in homes, offices and eateries, there was Hines Ward's ebullient face, smiling as always. On radios across Pittsburgh, there was the smooth voice, rising and dipping between confident and shaky.
At a South Side bar, a 44-year-old man watched from his stool as Mr. Ward, adopted by this town 14 years ago, cried tears of finality. The volume was off at the establishment, but Mr. Ward's emotions made the sound unnecessary.
At a sports merchandise store in the Strip District, the volume was on. Two women stood in front of the cash register, sobbing as Mr. Ward, wearing an all-black suit with a snazzy black and gold tie, announced his retirement from football.
"Today," he said, "I'm officially retiring a Pittsburgh Steeler. And 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. The black and gold runs deep in me, and I will remain a Steeler for life."
With that statement -- as powerful as any Steelers great can make -- Mr. Ward, 36, cemented his place in the hearts of Steelers fans around the globe. The two Super Bowls won with his help, the record-breaking numbers for a Steelers wide receiver, none of that accomplished what Tuesday's high-noon announcement did for Mr. Ward's place in Steelers lore.
Ever since Mr. Ward's controversial release from the franchise Feb. 29, fear had mounted among fans that they would have to see that smile beaming out of another helmet. Fans had to endure that heartbreak in 1984, when running back Franco Harris played his last season with the Seattle Seahawks after a contract dispute with the Steelers. In 1990, they had to see former center Mike Webster don Kansas City Chiefs red and yellow.
The idea of Mr. Ward, the most valuable player of Super Bowl XL, finishing his career with another National Football League team had become a real Steel City nightmare.
"In this town, if you leave, you're just not the same person to the Pittsburgh fan," said Jimmy Coen, who has sold thousands of Mr. Ward's No. 86 jerseys at Yinzer's in the Strip District. "As many years as he was here, if he went and played for Denver or New England or anywhere, when he came back here, he'd be tainted, and nobody would ever look at him the same way."
The question was, would Mr. Ward understand what was at stake? Surely, he had learned plenty about what it meant to be a Steeler in this city during his sterling career.
Mr. Ward arrived here in the spring of 1998, a third-round draft choice out of the University of Georgia. He had gone to college a quarterback and finished it a receiver, so he was thankful for any opportunity to keep improving his new craft. He walked into the Steelers locker room the first time and was in awe of the men surrounding him.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Mr. Ward said. "I saw Jerome [Bettis] and Kordell [Stewart], and I was almost like a big fan."
Soon, Mr. Ward would be a fan favorite, having made the team with the help of his prowess on special teams and rising to a Pro Bowl receiver by 2001. He was known just as much around the league for his commitment to blocking as he was catching passes. Certainly, his story was one that Pittsburgh could appreciate, and Mr. Ward was willing to give the love right back.
"I'd see Hines Ward come down here on Carson Street," said LeRoy Key, 36, of Mount Washington. "He'd be driving with his top down, and fans would wave at him, and he'd wave back."
When the Steelers released Mr. Ward last month, it burned many of their fans, who felt the organization hadn't treated him with proper respect. Mr. Ward then said in a statement that he did everything in his power to remain a Steeler but that he still hoped to continue his career.
Mr. Ward said Tuesday that he received interest from other teams during the past week. He called Mr. Bettis, who retired a Steeler after winning the Super Bowl in 2006 -- the perfect exit.
"He just asked me about retirement and other teams," Mr. Bettis said. "And I just told him that his true value is always having a Steeler helmet attached to him, and, when you leave, you lose some of that mystique. For a guy who's played his entire career in Pittsburgh, I just thought it would be a shame if he put another helmet on for someone else for a year or two."
When Mr. Ward walked into the news conference Tuesday at the Steelers' South Side practice facility, Mr. Bettis was sitting in the back row with former Steeler Aaron Smith (also recently released and retired) and current Steelers James Harrison and Brett Keisel.
Mr. Ward began by reading his thoughts from a note he had written, and it was no surprise what got him choked up a few minutes into his monologue: the fans.
"I've spent time reading thousands of emails, Facebook posts, tweets, letters, cards and well wishes from fans everywhere," Mr. Ward said. "As I read them, I was really moved by the tremendous outpouring of love, encouragement and support. It really got to me. Through it all, I realized that there's only one thing I love more than the game, and that's Steelers Nation."
It was then that Mr. Ward paused and put his right hand up to his lowered head. But he was far from done.
"For all the fans who camped out in the parking lot on game days in the freezing rain and snow," Mr. Ward said, "to all the fans who traveled nationwide to cheer us on, the ones wearing my jerseys in Denver and New York and even Baltimore ... it's truly amazing. Without your support over the last 14 years, this game wouldn't be the same to me. Wouldn't be as fun for me. You guys meant the world to me."
As Mr. Ward talked, Tuesday afternoon became a celebration not of Hines Ward but of what it means to be a Steeler and a Steelers fan.
"It makes me feel rewarded," said Rick Engberg, 44, who watched Mr. Ward's news conference at Mario's on the South Side, "but I also feel like I'm a part of a pretty unique sort of relationship between a town's fan base and its football team."
With Mr. Ward, there will be no confusion: He is a Steeler, a Pittsburgher, and even ...
"A Yinzer," Mr. Coen said. "This city's a genuine town. You can look somebody in the eye and say hello to them every day. You are your word. Other cities are not like that."
Mr. Coen's is a Pittsburgh story, too. He sold women's shoes until he started peddling Steelers merchandise as a street vendor 20 years ago. Six years ago, he moved into a vacant building on Penn Avenue.
"I put my life savings into this store," he said.
Tuesday, Mr. Coen ordered a shipment of shirts that are sure to sell. They will say, "Hines: black and gold forever."