I live in the land of Cheeseheads and these guys love their Packer football. It’s palpable through all the news segments seen on the local stations 365 days out of the year. It is a pretty special franchise, and as a diehard Steeler fan, it’s difficult not to give this franchise and its fans a nod of respect. This week they get a big tip of the hat from me…. the problem is, it makes me feel embarrassed at the same time of my own beloved Steelers.
Donald Driver retired from the Green Bay Packers at the end of this season. Everyone around here knew it was coming. After 14 seasons, he decided it was time to hang’em up. After six straight 1,000 yard seasons from 2004-2009, Driver’s production dropped off significantly. 2010 and 2011 saw a decline by more than almost half. Younger and faster talent hit the field, and Aaron Rodgers honed in on those targets. Driver was starting to take a back seat to the offense. In 2012, Driver could be seen on the sidelines while the rest of the offense was marching down the field. For those games I caught here locally, it was difficult to watch. I’ve met Driver, and he is one class act. I don’t think there is one Packer fan out there who wouldn’t want to see him end his career with one final hurrah and Super Bowl win. And if that couldn’t happen, at least let him end on his own terms. That’s exactly what happened for Driver, and he even had a big party to go out in style. On Wednesday, Donald Driver officially retired from the NFL in front of 2,000 fans (who waited out in the bitter cold for hours to get tickets to the event) at Lambeau Field. There were tears, but there were many more smiles. There was a lot of Packer love from teammates, friends, family, and even the team president. What a great send off – there’s even a street named after him now: Donald Driver Way.
Wouldn’t that have been great if Hines Ward got the same kind of final farewell? A confined conference room at Steelers headquarters with just the media and some players somehow doesn’t give me the same warm squishy feeling. The irony is thick…
Ward and Driver have had very similar careers that it borderlines creepy. Ward played for one team for 15 seasons. Driver played for one team for 14 seasons. Both were fan favorites. Both played with an extra level of intensity that made their presence infectious. They both finished with over 10,000 yards and over 50 TD’s in each of their careers (Ward 12,083, 85; Driver 10,137, 61). They are both Super Bowl champions (Ward 2, Driver 1). Ward was named Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl XL. They both have infectious personalities and smiles. They are both class acts. Now this is where it gets weird – they both competed in Dancing With the Stars, and they BOTH won. Even more creepy: the football seasons following their dancing crowns saw them at their lowest production and their subsequent retirements.
Seems only fair that they should get similar send offs from their teammates and fans. Except that’s not what happened. Driver was able to walk away and got a big send off from his team. Ward wanted to play one more year. Just one. That’s all. The Steelers didn’t see value in that and cut him. No one else wanted Ward either it seemed, and he was practically forced to retire. Now I know it would have been more or less a dog and pony show at the time, but shouldn’t the Steelers have at least allowed Ward to announce his retirement in a bit more style and fanfare than that cold and depressing presser? Why couldn’t he have bid a final adieu in the Steelers Hall of Fame at Heinz Field – a place where he will end up enshrined?
As I watched highlights from Driver’s retirement party, it made me reflect back to last year. And, it made me think that the Steelers were a bit too apathetic to one of their own greats. Hines Ward was done wrong, and it’s a scar that will forever be on the Steelers organization. Hines Ward may have had all the better numbers over Donald Driver, but Driver went out the way a champion and Packer ought to go – he at least has that over Ward. The Packers get the tip of the hat this week for being the better organization when it comes to legacy players like Donald Driver. I hope the Steelers learned their lesson with Ward…. or maybe the Post Gazette will make a killing with all the one page ads retiring players will buy in order to give their retirement speeches.