Tears flow as former Steelers receiver Ward ends 14-year career in NFL
Hines Ward was reading from notes at a podium when he spied James Harrison in a packed media room, apparently trying to bait him.
"No, Deebo," Ward said, calling the Steelers' outside linebacker by his nickname, "I'm not going to cry."
That pledge lasted about two minutes. And even Ward, the Steelers' all-time leading receiver, had to know the tears would come.
Ward bid farewell to his NFL career Tuesday, retiring after 14 seasons and saying his devotion to the Steelers trumped his desire to continue playing because the latter would have meant finishing his career elsewhere.
"I just couldn't fathom myself putting on another uniform," Ward said. "For me, it's not about going out and playing one or two more years for another organization. Deep down inside, my love wouldn't be there for it. I can say I am a Steeler for life, and that's the bottom line."
Ward was determined to keep playing, even after the Steelers announced their intentions to release him at the end of February.
Ward, who turned 36 earlier this month, said he received preliminary interest from other teams. In the end, a grassroots movement of sorts helped persuade him to leave the NFL the way he entered it.
Ward said he decided to retire after receiving thousands of messages from Steelers fans who couldn't fathom him wearing colors other than black and gold.
Ward, clad in a black suit and sporting a black and gold tie, got most choked up yesterday when talking about the fans.
"I was really moved by the tremendous outpouring of love, encouragement and support. That really got to me," Ward said. "Through it all, I realized there's only one thing I love more than the game and that's Steelers Nation. I came back to grant Steelers Nation one last request."
Ward leaves the Steelers as one of the most beloved and accomplished players in franchise history. He owns virtually every franchise receiving record, and Ward joins Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history with 1,000 catches and multiple Super Bowl victories.
Ward, a third-round pick out of Georgia in 1998, helped the Steelers reach the Super Bowl three times from 2005-10. He was the MVP of Super Bowl XL after catching five passes for 123 yards and a touchdown in a 21-10 win over Seattle.
Ferocious blocking — the kind that infuriated opponents and led the NFL to pass what was known as the "Hines Ward Rule" — is also a big part of Ward's legacy.
"He changed the wide receiver position in Pittsburgh," said former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, who is close with Ward. "He was physical. He was also prolific. He was just a complete wide receiver."
Ward opened 2011 as a starter, but injuries and the emergence of Antonio Brown had rendered the four-time Pro Bowler an afterthought in the passing game by the end of the season.
The Steelers officially released Ward on March 2.
Ward said he decided to retire after taking a step back and listening to fans as well as consulting Bettis. He contacted the Steelers on Monday about officially announcing his retirement the following day.
"I think it was tough initially," Bettis said of Ward's decision, "but the more he thought about it, the more it made sense for him to retire as a Steeler and not dilute his legacy."
Bettis, Harrison and defensive ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel were among Ward's former teammates who attended his news conference. Smith won the pool among players by guessing that Ward would shed tears 2 1⁄2 minutes into his send-off.
"It was bittersweet, but it was the right thing to do," Ward said of retirement. "I want to go down as one of the greatest to wear the black and gold, and that's how it should end."