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For Hines Ward, it's eat, sleep, dance

| Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hines Ward took a break from a different kind of practice to which he is accustomed, tugged at his pant leg and revealed a white sock with black rings that he bought recently while celebrating his and former Steeler Jerome Bettis' birthdays in Las Vegas.

Words on the sock carried Ward's current mantra: Eat. Sleep. Dance.

"That's really all we have time for," the Steelers receiver said Friday morning, about 12 hours after he was presented with the Art Rooney Award at the Westin, Downtown.

Ward and professional partner Kym Johnson spent much of the rainy day inside Art & Style Dance Studio on the South Side working on the paso doble, a lively dance step modeled after the drama of Spanish bullfights that they will perform Monday night on "Dancing With the Stars."

The pair have emerged as early favorites to win the competition. Since the premiere, they have inspired judges to wave Terrible Towels. They have also prompted past and current Steelers such as Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Rashard Mendenhall, Antwaan Randle El and Larry Foote to fly to Los Angeles for a live viewing.

Linebackers James Farrior and James Harrison and offensive tackle Max Starks are expected to be in the audience Monday.

"For them to come out and show their support," Ward said, "I guess they're impressed."

The support Ward has received from fans, he said, rivals what he has gotten during a decorated playing career.

"We're getting lots of e-mails and messages about how great he is doing, so there's no question Steelers Nation is paying attention," Steelers president Art Rooney II said. "It's fun to watch. I haven't watched that many dance shows, so it's a little different for me."

Ward's performing on "Dancing With the Stars" was almost a year in the making -- his business manager gauged his interest prior to the start of the 2010 football season -- but before last month, Ward said, he hadn't danced since college.

"I had never done a dance routine before. I was surprised at how quick I could pick it up," Ward said. "Sometimes (Johnson) thinks I've taken some lessons somewhere because I just react to it."

"You're an athlete, and you're really agile and smart," Johnson said while sitting next to Ward at the South Side studio. "You pick things up quick."

Watching the two off the dance floor makes it easy to see why they have so much chemistry on it. They have known each other less than a month but have the same give-and-take in conversation as they do while dancing.

Johnson throws back her head and laughs when Ward explains how his frequent use of slang confuses the Australian dancer, and it is not uncommon for the two to finish each other's sentences during an interview.

Johnson said she didn't know Hines Ward from Ward Cleaver when she learned she had been paired with him. She used Google to research Ward, who holds just about every major receiving record in Steelers history.

Ward, though, felt compelled to show her another side of him on the football field, one in which he plays to the whistle. That is how Johnson ended up watching a video of Ward flattening Ravens safety Ed Reed with a block in a 2007 game.

"I said, 'I can't imagine you being so aggressive on the field' because he's so sweet and gentle and really humble," said Johnson, who danced with former NFL defensive tackle Warren Sapp in 2008.

As much as Johnson has gotten to know Ward -- the two are together almost every day for at least five hours of practice -- she didn't understand why he wanted to incorporate a Terrible Towel into their routine last week.

"I was worried people would think you were off to clean some tables," Johnson said in her distinctive accent. "Now being in Pittsburgh I see how important the football team is to the city and how much they love Hines."

Johnson accompanied Ward for his two-day trip to Pittsburgh so they could practice before returning to Los Angeles today. All went well, though Johnson nearly got Ward's man card revoked Thursday night while they were at a South Side bar.

"There was a jukebox and all of the songs were cool, and the next thing I know Barry Manilow (starts playing)," Ward said with a laugh. "I kind of put my head down."

That is one of his few complaints about Johnson, who is as meticulous as any coach Ward has had. In addition to guiding him through practice and different dance steps, Johnson choreographs their routines.

Their attention to detail is one reason Ward and Johnson have enjoyed success on the show.

Johnson said she has trouble sleeping because she is always thinking about the next dance she has to choreograph. And Ward said he frustrates Johnson, at times, with his need for perfection.

Earlier this week, Ward refused to move to another part of their routine until he mastered a step that had been giving him trouble.

Eat, sleep and dance, indeed.

As his confidence grows, Ward said he would like for Lynn Swann to catch his act in Los Angeles. After all, they now have more in common than excelling at receiver for the Steelers.

"I see why Lynn Swann did ballet because it definitely helps your footwork," Ward said. "I'm trying to reach out to Lynn. I would love for him to come out there."

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