Bires: Ultimately, Ward's decision to retire was easy
Mike Bires Times Sports Staff | Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 11:45 pm
PITTSBURGH -- It was emotionally draining for Hines Ward after he stepped to the podium to explain why he ended his football career. As expected, tears flowed freely as reality set in.
His amazing football career was over.
But after facing the media for one last time, No. 86 beamed that wide, happy smile we've seen so often over the past 14 years.
One of the first hugs he received came from Jerome Bettis, the former Steelers running back who was wise enough to know when the time was right to bid farewell to the game he loved so much.
"The Bus" called it quits after reaching the pinnacle of a career that will surely put him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. He quit on top, right after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. He was 11 days shy of his 34th birthday and his body was in excellent condition considering all the pounding he took and delivered in his 13-year career.
Bettis wasn't about to hang around another year or two to prove he still could play at a high level when all signs suggested he was done.
That's why Ward must be applauded for the way he bowed out Tuesday.
Even though his competitive spirit told him "one more year," Ward realized deep down that enough was enough.
He wasn't going to play for the Steelers in 2012. If he went elsewhere, there were no guarantees he'd get significant playing time. He already has a resume that's Hall of Fame worthy.
And he certainly didn't want to end his career like another Steeler legend Gho tried to prolong his in a different NFL city. That would be Franco Harris, who rushed for 170 yards in 1984 when he opted to play for the Seattle Seahawks.
"As much as I will miss football, my teammates, coaches and everything about the game, I don't want to play it in any another uniform," Ward said at his farewell press conference. "The black and gold runs deep in me, and now I will remain a Steeler for life."
Ward's career effectively ended Feb. 29 when the Steelers informed him he would be cut. Even though Ward was willing to take a major pay cut -- he was due to make $4 million next season -- money wasn't an issue. The bottom line was that Ward no longer fit into the plans of coach Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers prefer the younger talent they have at wide receiver, so there was no need for Ward to hang around and add minimally to his franchise record of 1,000 career catches.
The record will show that Ward did not catch a pass in his last game, the playoff loss in Denver.
The last catch of his career, in the regular-season finale in Cleveland, went for a 3-yard loss.
But that won't diminish his amazing accomplishments that have endeared him to Steeles fans.
Some of the talk shows in Pittsburgh have been asking if Ward is one of the top 10 all-time Steelers. He's not on my top-10 list that includes Ernie Stautner, a terrific defensive tackle from the 1950s and early ‘60s, and more familiar greats like Harris, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jam Ham, Mel Blount, Mike Webster, Terry Bradshaw, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson. But I'd definitely rank Ward among the top 15 along with Bettis, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Ben Roethlisberger.
As far as Ward one day making it into the Hall of Fame, he probably has at least a 50/50 chance. He's eighth all-time in the NFL in catches, tied for 13th in touchdown catches (85) and 18th in receiving yards (12,083).
Some of the national members of the Hall of Fame voting committee don't think Ward is Hall of Fame worthy. But some who have seen him play on a regular basis over the years believe otherwise.
He's by far the best blocking wideout of his generation. He always played the game with amazing zeal and passion. He holds multiple team records. And he's played in three Super Bowls, including two the Steelers won. In SB 40, the last game Bettis played in, Ward was MVP.
"When I first came into this league, I didn't think I would have such a long and productive career," Ward said. "I am truly blessed. I have accomplished all I set out to and more. I really have nothing left to prove."
Ultimately, that's why his decision to retire was easy.