The end of an era has culminated in Pittsburgh. The man who wears an effervescent smile while playing a violent game has calmly been shown the door.
The recent news of Hines Ward being told his release is imminent from the Rooney family has sparked debate as to whether a place in Canton is in the near future. The talk though is premature.
Ward has stated he has some more football left in his body. Those already comparing his statistics to other wide receivers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame may have to wait until at least this time next year to finally study his resume.
Some of his accomplishments to date are a couple of Super Bowl rings with the first accompanied by an MVP honor. One additional appearance in Super Bowl XLV was a losing effort, but his seven catches during the game moved him into 2nd place all-time with 88 post-season receptions. If Ward does indeed return for another season he will likely look towards a contender in hopes of adding a third championship ring.
As strange as it may sound or also look, if and when Ward wears a new uniform, there were several other Steeler greats before him who were faced with the same decision of closing the curtain on their own storied careers, but instead opted to call a new place home.
Franco Harris spent twelve seasons donning the black and gold before he landed for one year as Seattle Seahawk. Mike Webster spent fifteen years snapping from center while displaying the hypocycloids on the right side of his helmet until the last two of his career were played with an arrowhead above each ear.
Other Steeler greats also felt they had more to offer after their playing careers in the steel city. Three time first-team all-pro Greg Lloyd spent his final season as a Carolina Panther. Former 2nd round pick Levon Kirkland also found more work as a middle linebacker in Seattle and Philadelphia after he was sent packing in Pittsburgh.
Rod Woodson played nine years with the Steelers before he was told his skills had diminished. Woodson played an additional seven seasons with San Francisco, Baltimore, and Oakland. He was a starter on the Super Bowl winning team for Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV. Woodson also helped lead the 2002 Oakland team to Super Bowl XXXVII and his eight interceptions during the regular season led the team.
Ward may not find the same prolonged career as Rod Woodson unless he stumbles upon a fountain of youth. The harsh reality for a football player in their mid-thirties offers no such finding. His skill-set at age 36 may not even garner him another start if he can find further employment with another franchise.
Much speculation has already been made as to where Ward will land. Two former offensive coordinators, Mike Mularkey and Ken Whisenhunt, might do more than just kick the tires and offer him an opportunity. A connection to Chicago has also been made with a former college coach now holding the wide receivers coaching position with the Bears. His work ethic and style of play could also potentially land him with one other NFC North team residing in a blue-collar town, the Detroit Lions. His hometown of Atlanta has also been mentioned as a landing spot.
The true unthinkable destinations would have Ward playing for another AFC North team. It may not seem as far-fetched though. Ward has played most of his career with an attitude to show others he can get the job done. The Steelers organization tried on different occasions to move him down the depth chart by drafting wide receivers with their first round picks. Troy Edwards came and went. Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes were each taken under the wing of Ward and both eventually departed to become part of the New York Jets self-proclaimed flight 1017 last year. Because of being somewhat highly publicized receivers, Burress and Holmes managed to find one-way tickets out of Pittsburgh while Ward stayed grounded.
If indeed the book closes on the playing career of Hines Ward, it will have done so with many chapters referencing his familiar grin as a foot-note. For a football player who defined a position by inflicting pain and initiating rage in his opponents and opposing fans, he will likely experience those same feelings if he’s not able to return towards a huddle smiling.