Steelers receiver Ward joins exclusive club
CLEVELAND — It was hardly the type of play — a shovel pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that lost three yards — that will define Hines Ward's career. But the Steelers' Hall of Fame-bound receiver will happily take it.
"It didn't matter, the minus-three yards," Ward said after his 1,000th career catch, just the eighth player in NFL history to reach the milestone. "It was the happiest minus catch that I ever had."
A 35-year-old, 14-year veteran, Ward did it Sunday in the fourth quarter of the Steelers' 13-9 win at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Roethlisberger had no qualms about the modest nature of the catch, or who his target was going to be.
"It's still such an awesome honor and I feel privileged to play with the guy," he said.
"It's definitely a huge accomplishment," Ward said of his feat. "All week I was just trying to say, 'Man, I just want to win.' Because we still have a chance (to win) the AFC North and get that bye week. I think winning meant more to me than anything, but in the back of my mind I thought, "Man, it would be great to get a thousand catches.'"
Because Baltimore beat Cincinnati, the Steelers failed to win their division and get some welcome time off. Now they will travel to Denver for a wild-card game this weekend.
Ward's performance, five catches for 24 yards, mirrored the type of offense-deficient game it was for both teams. His longest catch went for all of nine yards.
No matter. Ward's megawatt smile beamed like a lighthouse. He joked that fellow receiver Jerricho Cotchery told him a pause in the occasional snow showers would allow ample conditions to reach the magic mark. Sure enough, it happened, just before the stadium began to resemble a giant snow globe.
"After I caught it, the bad weather started coming," he said. "It would have been a nightmare to try to catch it (in the snow)."
Ward, who admitted he was nervous coming in, gave due credit to his teammates, who heaped him with hugs and congratulations when he came to the sideline. "Those guys are my biggest fans," he said.
He also reflected on how a 1998 third-round draft pick who started out as a quarterback at Georgia reached this point.
"Not bad for a guy considering where I came from, and doing it all with this organization," said Ward, who has helped the Steelers get to three Super Bowls, winning two. "So hats off to all the coaching staffs, all my teammates, Mr. Rooney (owner Dan Rooney) and all those guys.
"My thousandth catch, my whole career here, this is amazing. Coming to the NFL, I was just proud to be in the NFL. My goal wasn't to catch a thousand balls or anything. But through hard work and perseverance and being able to stay healthy ... Here I am. It's an elite club to be in."
Ward, who has seen his playing time diminish as a new generation of Steelers receivers blossoms, again was asked about his NFL future.
"I never really have time to reflect on that," he said. "I've been so mentally focused on doing what I can do, help this team, help the younger guys to be in this position to make it to the playoffs. I have plenty of time for that. You guys will be the first ones to know when that happens."
One of the younger guys, receiver Emmanuel Sanders, said he is lucky to have Ward as a teammate, teacher and role model.
"I'm extremely honored to be playing with a guy like him," Sanders said. "He's taught me how to be a pro in this league. He's taught me a lot of things."
Steelers vs. Browns January 1, 2012
The Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Cleveland Browns, 13-9, Sunday, January 1, 2012.
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