View Full Version : Hines Ward: Team elder, leader, spokesperson

01-22-2011, 04:14 PM
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/23/sport ... nted=print (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/23/sports/football/23steelers.html?hpw=&pagewanted=print)

January 22, 2011
Ward Has Hands, and Comments, You Can Count On

PITTSBURGH — When the Steelers’ season began, Ben Roethlisberger waited nervously behind smoked glass doors, preparing to face fans for the first time at training camp. Just as he was about to step into the unknown after an off-season of troubling behavior and damaging publicity, his teammate Hines Ward appeared beside Roethlisberger and said he would walk out with him.

Then in December, as Steelers linebacker James Harrison piled up fines for delivering hits to the head, Ward blasted the N.F.L., calling its leaders hypocrites for, among other things, fining players for banned hits while lobbying for more regular-season games in labor negotiations, and predicting that a playoff game could turn on an official who throws a flag because he is afraid to hear from the league office.

This was Ward as team conscience, the slot receiver turned spokesman. In his 13th season, Ward is the longest-tenured Steeler, and after years of letting everyone from Joey Porter to Jerome Bettis do the talking, he has embraced his role as elder statesman. Ward emerged as a reliable sound bite in shoulder pads during one of the most unusual Steelers seasons in years.

Pittsburgh remained a top team in the A.F.C. even though Roethlisberger, their star quarterback, was suspended for the first four games of the season and Harrison, their defensive cornerstone, was singled out in the enforcement of rules on player safety.

Ward acknowledges that he is an only child to explain why he is so comfortable speaking out. But he does not crave attention so much as give voice to the whispers in the locker room.

“It’s almost like as players, you can’t have opinions,” Ward said last week. “If they ask me a question, I give an honest answer. I know when to be politically correct. Being one of the team leaders, I’m kind of the voice of the people. I hear all the stories, I hear all the complaints, and I get an opportunity. A lot of people think it’s just my opinion, but when I speak, I speak for the majority of this team. I try to put it in the right form.”

Ward regards Harrison and Roethlisberger as brothers. Ward is particularly passionate about player-safety issues because he was not permitted to return to a November game against New England after he sustained a neck injury. That snapped his streak of games with a reception at 186. Ward said that he felt perfectly fine after the hit and that he had felt far worse after others yet was allowed to keep playing.

But Ward’s treatment of Roethlisberger was the most telling. Ward and linebacker James Farrior are the most respected Steelers, and Ward had withheld judgment on Roethlisberger, saying he should address his teammates about the particulars of an incident involving his behavior toward a woman in a Georgia bar. Roethlisberger had been aloof to much of the team, and Ward was the first to signal that Roethlisberger was trying to change when Ward announced at the start of training camp that Roethlisberger was trying to be a better teammate.

“This is a team,” Roethlisberger said. “We stand up for each other, we look out for each other. And I think that’s one of the reasons we have the success that we have is because we are there for each other and we treat each other like we’re family and we see each other as family.”

Ward has long been someone whom other players have turned to, particularly on offense. He is playing for his third Super Bowl title in six seasons. Ward remains a cog for that group, even as Roethlisberger’s reliance on the deep pass has expanded. Ward caught 59 passes for 755 yards and 5 touchdowns this season, and although he is nowhere near as fast as Mike Wallace, he caught one fewer pass than Wallace did.

When Wallace arrived last season, Ward and Santonio Holmes took him under their wings. On the field, Ward told Wallace how to run routes and block. Off the field, Ward told him to always protect himself.

“He is the biggest influence on the whole team,” Wallace said. “He’s one of few guys they respect around the league. When he says things like that, it boosts our team up, and he has a lot of credibility. He’s the face of the franchise.”

Before Bettis retired, that was his job, fielding complaints and concerns from coaches and players, and filtering opinions to the public. Ward looked up to Bettis when they shared a locker room and now, from a distance, Bettis has watched Ward.

“It’s a natural evolution,” Bettis said in a telephone interview. “As you become an elder statesman, you realize it’s important for you to continue the legacy that the guys before you set. It’s up to you to pass it on. This year, more than ever before, there have been national issues. He’s always been very forthcoming in talking to the media. They know he’s going to shoot you straight. Obviously, it’s refreshing when you have one of your superstars call it like he sees it.”

Inside the locker room, away from the cameras, Steelers players prevailed on Ward to take an even more active role with the youngest members of the offense — among them the rookie receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders — after Holmes was traded to the Jets during the off-season. Then, a few weeks ago, when the Steelers were preparing for the playoffs, Ward stood before his teammates and implored them — particularly the youngest ones who had not been to the playoffs — to raise their games. Just as Ward has raised his voice.

“If you don’t want my opinion, don’t ask,” Ward said. “People may disagree with what I have to say; some people might say, ‘I understand what he’s saying.’ It seems people just look at us as football players. I’m a strongly opinionated person. I won’t say much if I don’t feel strongly about it.”

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Didn't know that. Ben must have appreciated that greatly. Very nice touch, classy.

01-22-2011, 04:17 PM