It’s a car that came into the league in 1998 and has taken me all the way around Steeler Nation and still runs pretty well today.
It does break down every once in a while, and when I bring it to the shop the mechanic asks me, “How old is this thing?”
And I say, “How old is Hines Ward?”
And then we have a good laugh.
But the ride is over. Ward, who also came into the league in 1998, is leaving. At least he’s leaving Pittsburgh. So I may need a new car, just like the Steelers need a new beast.
Sure, it’s a clunker of an analogy, but it's hard saying goodbye to something so reliable. So all I can say to Hines is what Neil Young once said in a song about his old car: “Long May You Run.”
* I met Hines Ward at minicamp in “the ghetto” of the Three Rivers Stadium locker room in 1998. It was an annex of the locker room where the Steelers put all of their rookies, except for their first three draft picks. Ward was the fourth that year, but regardless of his status Hines was ebullient that day. You could tell right then that he had found his new home.
* What a champ, I thought. “Rookie of the Year,” I wrote.
* Ward didn’t win any awards that season, but who will ever forget the tackles he made on special teams that first preseason? Or his number 15?
* I remember the Monday night game in Kansas City in 1998, when Ward came out of the huddle trying to get the glove off his right hand, and I remember thinking that something was up just before he got the ball and threw a 17-yard pass back to Kordell Stewart on third-and-10.
* Ward’s friend Bobby Shaw once told me to ask Ward about the “target board.” It was something Ward had put up in the wide receivers’ meeting room. “If there’s a DB who wants to play dirty, trying to punk somebody out, we’ll put him on there,” Ward explained. “Once he’s on there, somebody has to go after him on every play.”
* The “target board” came to symbolize the rest of Ward’s career. It was born out of a response to a cheap shot Bills safety Kurt Schultz had put on Troy Edwards during a preseason game.
* The story reminded me of Blaine Bishop, one of Ward’s first nemeses. And then I remembered Victor Green, who hit Ward over the middle during a game in 2000 and warned Ward that he’d better not come over the middle again. Ha. Ward went after Green the rest of the game before the worn down Green said to Plaxico Burress, “Tell your boy to chill out.” Burress replied: “I’m not telling him nothing.”
* Green later complained to his wife, and his wife told Lee Flowers’ wife, “That No. 86 needs to calm down a little bit,” she said. And it eventually got back to a chuckling Steelers locker room.
* Green tried but he could not get revenge the next time out.
* Earl Little and his Cleveland teammates tried that revenge thing in 2001. Two plays after Little had threatened to kill Ward, Ward gave him a concussion. The Browns lost that day, and they lost the retaliatory rematch, 28-7.
* That same year, Ward bloodied Rod Woodson’s nose with a blindside block against the Ravens. Girlfriends once again got involved and through them the Steelers found out the Ravens had a bounty on Ward in the rematch. The Steelers won that one, too, 26-21.
* The Ward-Woodson feud was settled by a phone call from Bill Cowher to Woodson. “He told me I would’ve loved to have played with Hines Ward,” Woodson said. “Once he said that I understood where Ward was coming from.”
* Ward came from the University of Georgia, which always amused Georgia Tech’s Flowers. “You’ve just got to talk kind of slow to Hines,” Flowers said. “He can say what he wants, as long as we keep beating them,” Ward said of the college rivalry.
* In a mop-up appearance by Tommy Maddox in the 2001 regular-season finale against Cleveland, Ward was doing the talking in the huddle. “Plax needs 16 and I need 4,” he told Maddox. And three plays later, the Steelers had their first pair of 1,000-yard receivers in team history.
* I remember the wars Ward had with Donovin Darius. And I remember the wicked killshots Ward laid on Bart Scott and Ed Reed in the same game, both deservedly so.
* “Like I tell Plaxico,” Hines once said, “you can’t go out there and be friends on the field. You’ve got to make your money. C.J. taught me that.”
* I wonder if “The Young Money Crew” will ever come to know that Charles Johnson is the grandfather of wideout physicality in Pittsburgh.
* Ward’s block on 6-foot-6, 280-pound defensive end Eric Hicks sprung Amos Zereoue for a 10-yard run on third-and-3 to seal a 20-17 win in Kansas City in 2001. But Ward didn’t just seal the edge. “I pushed him all the way to the other side,” Ward said after the game. “I just took him off the (TV) screen.”
* I remember Ward’s emergency appendectomy two weeks before the 2002 season, a season in which he caught 112 passes.
* And I remember that the hit on Keith Rivers wasn’t a cheap one. Ward actually hit the Bengals linebacker in the chest/shoulder area, not the head. Rivers banged his head off the turf. Didn’t matter to the league. They came up with the Hines Ward Rule anyway.
* Do you remember the tape Ward put across his helmet with his name scrawled on it? He did that to put himself in the mindset of an undrafted rookie.
* Speaking of training camp, Ward reported in the best shape of his life in 2006. And I remember the reigning Super Bowl MVP playing cornerback after practice in the 5 p.m. heat to help rookie Santonio Holmes get in some extra work.
* Was Hines the first player to ever go looking for a kid wearing his jersey to give him the ball after a touchdown? I will forever say the answer is yes.
* I’m pretty sure he did that after his famous Flapping Eagle celebration in 2004.
* “I love that,” Ward once said of flustered defensive backs. “They’re worried about me and here comes Jerome with the ball.”
* Psycho Ward was to Heinz Field what Lambert’s Lunatics was to Three Rivers Stadium.
* Skipping into the end zone for the Super Bowl XL MVP.
* Or did he win it with the 37-yard catch on third-and-28?
* “I’m taking the Bus to Disney World!”
* Ward said that a year and two weeks after sobbing in front of TV cameras because he didn’t think he’d be able to win one for Bettis.
* Ward showed us that it’s OK to cry, and that it’s OK to smile and laugh, even during a play. And he taught us that it’s OK – no, that it’s vital – to stand up to bullies.
* I remember Ward standing up in the locker room after a loss to Denver in 2006 and taking the blame after his fumble at the 1-yard line put the defending champions at 2-6.
* I remember Ward standing up an awful lot.
* The Steelers were leading the Dolphins 6-3 in Ben Roethlisberger’s first pro start when Ben squeezed a 7-yard touchdown pass into the hands of a diving Ward in the front corner of the end zone in what I believe was a hurricane in Miami.
* I remember Ward walking out with Roethlisberger on the first day of training camp 2010, just in case the public hadn’t forgiven the quarterback. “If they boo you, they’re booing me and they’re booing the organization,” Ward told him.
* But what about the alleged rivalry between the two? “It’s a big brother-little brother thing,” Ward explained. “We get on each other’s nerves but there are never bad feelings.”
* Once against the Browns, Ward was in full smile as the cameras zoomed in past his facemask during the play. The ball was still in the air as he was looking up for the bomb. And I remember Ward catching it over his shoulder, in stride, and laughing all the way to the end zone.
* The smile. I will never forget the smile.
* And I will never forget Hines Ward. Nor his like will we ever see again. Long may he run.