Starkey: Hines a Steelers legend

| Thursday, March 1, 2012

Put a face on the Steelers' modern history, one that represents not only the franchise's glorious achievement but also its attitude and aura.

Art Rooney and his stogie would be an obvious choice, as would Jack Lambert and his toothless, raging scowl.

Mean Joe Greene's glare or Chuck Noll's pensive stare would work, as well.

But there is at least one more mug that deserves special mention: Hines Ward's.

In a smiling pose, of course. Was there any other?

The topic arises in the wake of the Steelers announcing they will release Hines — it doesn't seem right to refer to him as "Ward," does it• — before March 13.

It is the right move, even though Hines made it clear he'd be willing to play for allowance money. One of the reasons the Steelers perpetually reload, as opposed to rebuild, is that they remove emotion when making business decisions.

They do not believe Hines merits a spot on their roster. Therefore, he is finished as a Steeler after 14 incredible seasons.

In some 40 years of watching football, I can't say I've seen a more complete player. By complete, I mean productive, consistent, tough — a factor on nearly every snap.

I don't know that I've seen many wide receivers crack down on defensive ends. Haven't seen any break a linebacker's jaw. Never saw one besides Hines light up Ed Reed and Bart Scott in the same game.

Come to think of it, I never saw one lose a shoe and outrun DeAngelo Hall, either.

That was the big lie about Hines — that he wasn't real athletic. True, he was no blazer. But the man played multiple positions at an SEC school (Georgia), including quarterback, and even in his final decrepit season was leaping over Titans safety Michael Griffin to score.

Off the field, Hines spoke his mind. He was a self-promoter, for sure, but at the same time the ultimate team player. You could ask any of the team's younger receivers about how Hines mentored them even as his playing time shrunk.

Hines told us so many times, in so many settings, that "nobody thought I could do it." The saying became a punch line.

But you know what• It was true. When Hines walked into Steelers headquarters in 1998, a third-round pick without an ACL in his left knee, barely 6 feet tall, I'm guessing nobody looked at him and said, "That guy's going to put up better numbers than Swann and Stallworth."

He started out as a gunner on the punt team — maybe the sickest gunner in NFL history. How'd you like to be catching a punt with smiling Hines bearing down on you?

If you looked close enough at his tattoos, you could find Hines' motivation. Born in Seoul, South Korea, the son of a black American serviceman and a Korean national, he carried more than a chip on his shoulder pads. It was a boulder.

On one biceps, Hines had a tattoo that read "Junior," the name his mother, Young He, gave him. Divorced when Hines was an infant, she sometimes worked three jobs and 16 hours a day to support him growing up in Atlanta.

"I'm a 'Junior,' but she doesn't like my father," Hines once told me, in typically honest terms. "My father and her don't get along, so she doesn't call me by my real name."

On his other biceps, he had his name spelled in Korean, pasted over ... Mickey Mouse?

"I got it when I was in high school," Hines explained. "It's Mickey Mouse playing football, and that's how I play: I'm like a big kid enjoying football."

The classic Hines quote: "I'm not a T.O.," he once said, referring to Terrell Owens. "I just want to win."

How about your favorite Hines moments?

Mine, randomly, would include these:

> > The time he turned an innocent screen into a violent, 14-yard TD against the Bears in 2005. He caught the ball on the 19 and made a defender miss at the 10 before meeting linebacker Lance Briggs in a high-speed collision at the 5. He buried Briggs and spun around, maintained his balance and carried safety Todd Johnson the final five yards before diving across the goal line.

> > The time he played in a Sept. 9 season-opener against New England after undergoing an emergency appendectomy Aug. 23.

> > The time ... well, any number of times against the Baltimore Ravens, the team that once put a bounty on his head.

Hines knew they'd eventually get him back. They did in the 2011 season opener, when Jarret Johnson laid him out.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Steelers let him know it was time. He is finished, at least in Pittsburgh. Sad for sure.

But somewhere inside you have to make room for a smile.

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