By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
October 12, 2011
Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward(notes) (86) heads to the end zone over Tennessee Titans safety Michael Griffin(notes), scoring a touchdown during the third quarter of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011. (AP)
PITTSBURGH (AP)—Hines Ward doesn’t know where it comes from, really.
The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver doesn’t have many theories either. He can’t tell you why he leapt over Tennessee’s Michael Griffin at the goal line during the third quarter to score his second touchdown of the day in Pittsburgh’s easier than expected 38-17 rout.
Maybe it was instinct. Maybe it was the memory of pulling a similar move over Denver’s Champ Bailey a few years ago. Maybe it was the residual effects of all that nifty footwork he displayed while winning “Dancing With the Stars” during the spring.
Ward doesn’t know and to be honest, he doesn’t care.
“I can’t put a finger on what made me do that,” Ward said, “but just to do that and to be able to help this team get going, that’s all that matters.”
That’s all that’s ever mattered to the 35-year-old Ward, even as his career numbers have reached staggering heights.
The 14-year veteran needs 13 yards against Jacksonville on Sunday to surpass Hall-of-Famer Michael Irvin for 19th on the all-time list. He’s 108 yards away from becoming just the 18th receiver to reach the 12,000-yard plateau and is 26 catches away from 1,000.
Heady numbers for any receiver, astronomical ones for a player on franchise that has built its foundation—and six Super Bowl championships—on running the ball.
It’s an onus that isn’t lost on Ward, arguably one of the greatest blocking receivers in history. He’s never hesitated to stick his 6-foot, 205-pound frame in the face of a linebacker in hopes of creating a seam for a back. His blue collar work ethic in a decidedly white collar position has endeared him to one of the NFL’s most ardent fan bases and made him one of the team’s unquestioned leaders.
One who took it upon himself to help the Steelers break out of an early season funk. Ward sat quietly at his locker a week ago after the team fell to 2-2 with a decisive loss at Houston and stressed there was no need to point fingers, adding there was more than enough blame to go around.
He then responded with a vintage performance, grabbing seven passes for 54 yards and his first two score game in two years. His 7.7 yards per reception is deceiving. Six of his seven catches went for first downs or touchdowns, including his balletic dive over Griffin that gave the Steelers a 28-3 lead in the third quarter.
“That’s Hines,” fellow wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “He’s passionate. He’s tough. He’s a guy you can learn from because he’s been doing it at a high level for so long.”
Ward has accepted a somewhat diminished role in the offense with typical grace. Third-year speedster Mike Wallace is developing into one of the top deep threats in the game. Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are younger and quicker. Tight end Heath Miller remains a favorite of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, particularly in the red zone.
Yet with the season at a critical point, Roethlisberger turned to the guy that’s been a dutiful security blanket for whoever has been under center since he joined the team in 1998. Kordell Stewart. Tommy Maddox. Mike Tomczak. Charlie Batch. Byron Leftwich. Whenever it’s third-and-6 there’s been little doubt where the ball is heading.
“I always pride myself on being the guy that Ben and this organization can lean your hat on, to be the dependable guy to go out and make play,” Ward said.
Though he knows his window is closing, don’t think it’s close to being shut.
“I can’t change my age, I know I’m 35,” Ward said. “That’s the story but for me it’s just a matter of just staying healthy.”
And Ward says he’s never felt better. While his teammates sat at home during the NFL lockout wondering when they’d get back to work, Ward was cha-chaing his way to the mirror ball trophy on “Dancing With the Stars.”
He’s reluctant to say all that two-stepping helped his footwork, but it certainly didn’t hurt. The glow of the victory, however, was tarnished by his arrest on a DUI charge in July. He apologized for the distraction but maintains his innocence.
If the arrest is a distraction, it doesn’t show. He’s on pace to top 60 receptions for the 11th time in his career, something Steeler greats John Stallworth and Lynn Swann combined to do five times, though Ward is quick to point out they have four Super Bowl rings and he has just two.
How many more rings, catches and well-choreographed touchdown dances does Ward have left? He’s not sure. Ward is signed through 2013, when he’ll be 37. If he stays injury free, he can see himself playing beyond that, though he cautions he won’t stick around along as fellow “Dancing With the Stars” alum Jerry Rice, who was catching passes until he was 42.
“I won’t play that long, trust me,” Ward said. “I take it one year at a time. When I look up and I’m going against a guy that I’m supposed to be getting open against all the time and I’m not, I’ll walk away from the game.”