At 12:00pm this afternoon, Hines Ward – the most prolific wide receiver to ever wear the Steelers jersey – retired at a press conference held at the Steelers South Side complex. In an emotional speech, Ward thanked his teammates, the coaches, the Rooney Family, and Steeler Nation for supporting him over his 14-year NFL career. Many times during the announcement, Ward had to choke back tears as he explained the decision he had made. While he had interest from other teams as a free agent, Ward stated that he simply could not see himself wearing any other uniform than the black and gold. The press conference was covered by all major local and national sports media outlets, and was attended by numerous former teammates of Ward, including Jerome Bettis, Aaron Smith, and James Harrison.
While the debate over whether Ward could have played another season will now live eternal, the manner in which he retired will never be debated as anything other than a classy exit by one of the greatest players to ever call Pittsburgh their home. Ward made several comments about how important Steeler Nation and the Steelers organization are to him, and stated that by retiring he was granting Steeler Nation one final request – that he leave the game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Now the debate on whether Hines Ward is a Hall of Fame worthy player will begin, as his career statistics and achievements are on par with many of the current wide receivers who are waiting for their call into Canton. What can not be debated is the impact Hines Ward has made on the Pittsburgh Steelers. A third-round pick in the 1998 NFL Draft out of the University of Georgia, Ward came into the league as a multi-talented player who had been used as a receiver, tailback, and quarterback in his four-year career with the Bulldogs. Used primarily on special teams in his first NFL season, Ward earned a reputation for playing to the whistle and his blue-collar approach to the game – traits that are revered in Pittsburgh.
Over the next decade, Hines Ward became the go-to receiver for a long line of Steelers playcallers. Whenever the team needed a big play late in a game, or a huge 3rd down reception, Ward always seemed to make the play. He was chosen to represent the Steelers in four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2001-2004, and was the primary weapon in a Steelers passing offense that became even more potent with the addition of QB Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. In 2005, Ward was involved in a lengthy contract holdout that cost him the first two weeks of training camp. Persuaded by team captain RB Jerome Bettis to come back into the fold, Ward was back with the Steelers in time for the first preseason game. Within a few weeks, he had the contract he wanted in hand, and the Steelers set out on one of their most memorable seasons in decades. The end result was a Steelers Super Bowl XL victory over the Seattle Seahawks and a Super Bowl MVP award for Ward, who racked up five receptions for 123 yards in the game and scored the decisive touchdown on a historic pass from fellow WR Antwaan Randle-El that will be shown on NFL Films compilation videos forever.
Ward would contribute again to a Steelers championship in 2008 when he finished the season with 83 receptions for 1,043 yards. Despite suffering a knee injury in the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, Ward played in Super Bowl XLIII, won by the Steelers over the Arizona Cardinals to give Hines Ward two Super Bowl rings for his career. Throughout 2008-2011, Ward broke every Steelers receiving record and established himself as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Hines Ward retires today as the greatest wide receiver in Steelers history – a history that includes Hall of Fame players Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. His connection with the fans of Pittsburgh will always follow him wherever his future career path takes him, and he will be remembered for being not only a great player, but a great Steelers player. Universally respected by his teammates, Ward has stated that despite all of the records he holds, the most valuable achievements he has earned were the three Steelers Team MVP Awards he was given by his teammates in 2002, 2003, and 2005.
Pittsburgh sports fans should feel honored to have been able to watch this amazing athlete for 14 years, as he defended the city of Pittsburgh and Steeler Nation on the gridiron. As he said today in his announcement “I will always be a Pittsburgh Steeler”. Hines, you will always be beloved by Steeler Nation. Thank you for all you have accomplished for our city, and thank you for doing it all with a smile.