The ball is snapped, the defensive end screams past the exterior linemen, the halfback misses a block, the defensive end sacks the quarterback, the clock strikes double zero, and the defensive end’s teammates carry him off the field in triumph - thus bringing a dramatic end to a very short yet storied football career. That was Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger’s ending. A very Hollywood ending, even though it happened in real life. An ending that makes anyone (football or non-football fan) feel good about overcoming obstacles to achieving your dream and that hard work, heart and dedication pay off.
And although many football careers – college and pro – end very unceremoniously, there are some that should end with a bit more with a set of decency and fanfare than just turning off a light switch. Hines Ward and his career was one of them.
The talk of Ward finishing his career as a Steeler began when he signed his last contract which would have ended in 2013/14. As the weeks came and went (and Ward accumulated catch after catch and yard after yard) the stage was set for another ‘Jerome Bettis’ type of exit for a Steeler so loved by many. The Steelers as a team and as an organization saw to it that (practically promised) that Ward would reach the record books with 1,000+ catches and all the yards he could muster. Well I guess that’s all the team was keeping him around for because they decided his services were no longer needed. And that, quite frankly, is just piss poor form.
The release didn’t come right away. It took almost a full month after the Super Bowl before the team decided to finally make Ward’s release official. NFL.com (through the PPG) reported yesterday that the Steelers never even offered Ward a pay cut in order to stay on the team – even after Ward said that he would do anything he could to stay a Steeler. Why wasn’t that enough? What could Ward have possibly done to deserve such a cold response to 14 years of dedicated service and exceptional production – certainly not the suspected DUI? Of course, this is a business, but have we really come to a point in the NFL when our heroes mean nothing anymore? Shouldn’t have 14 years, two Super Bowls, a Super Bowl MVP and undying love from all of Steeler Nation warrant at least one more year if not the two that were left on Wards contract?
The Steelers have released some pretty marquee and veteran players the past few weeks. Most if not all did not really need to receive more than a phone call that said, ‘Thanks for your years of service, but we need some money in order for this organization to stay competitive this year and years to come. Good luck to you.’ Guys like Kemoeatu. Thanks but no thanks, Captain Penalty, and there’s the door. Guys like McFadden who overstayed their welcome.. Coaches like Arians who went against the grain of the organization. But not Ward. Ward deserved more than that. He deserved more than being led on worse than that girl in high school who said she’d think about going to that dance me…damn her anyways. He deserved more than an unceremonious phone call. More than a Facebook response to all of his fans of how ‘This isn’t how [he] wanted this chapter of [his] career to end.” He opened with that line and nearly made me cringe with rage at how heartbreaking that statement really is.
This was far from a graceful goodbye from the Steelers. I have no doubt that by catch 1,000 the Steelers knew that Ward would no longer be part of this organization. They could have a press conference. They could have made other gestures to give a final bow and sense of respect for a player who gave his all and helped win the franchise it’s 5th and 6th Super Bowls. And in actuality, they could have just given him the vet minimum, told him in a private meeting that he would not be on the team come 2013 and allow him to announce a retirement at the beginning of the season – a season that could have amounted to a final moment of glory for the cherished Steeler (win or lose) because all eyes would have been on Ward. Just as he deserved – leaving on HIS terms.
It’s going to take a long time for me to forgive the Steelers for handling the situation as they did. For a classy organization, it was pretty classless. I hope that Ward just retires and goes into coaching. But if he wants to play, he deserves to play. Some team will be very fortunate to have him on their roster – even if he doesn’t post Pro Bowl numbers. I think Steeler Nation will have to realize that there’s a strong chance that we will never see Hines Ward on a Steeler sideline EVER AGAIN. Rooney and Co. may have taken one of the best things to happen to this team in the last 20 years and take a big dump on it. If you didn’t think he was contributing to the team the way you wanted to fine. But where is the decency? Legacy athletes like Ward are hard to come by these days in any sport.
Farewell, Hines. I wish things would have ended differently.