After fourteen years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, wide receiver Hines Ward is retiring from pro football. The game won’t be the same without him.
Ward regularly posted 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He was a Super Bowl MVP and a pro-bowler. He holds numerous team records for receiving. He’s only one of eight guys ever to catch 1,000 passes in the NFL. But Ward won’t be enshrined in Canton for receiving. He will be remembered for how played the game: joyful, unyielding and violent.
As the NFL has become more of a pass-happy league, the receivers have become taller, swifter, more graceful. The tight ends too; on some teams it’s hard to tell the difference. The Packers’ Jermichael Finley plays split out far more than he gets into a three-point stance. These are all great things if you like down-field bombs and high-scoring games as most fans do. But defenses are getting off easy as fewer guys on offense throw blocks in the open field. The same enforcers who complain about refs overprotecting quarterbacks can no longer hear the chin music. And at just 6-foot and 205 pounds, Ward was one of the finest soloists to ever play the game on offense.
Ward’s peers twice named him the dirtiest player in the NFL, mostly for his tendency to level defensive backs unaware. It could get ugly too. In October of 2008, Ward broke Keith Rivers’ jaw, ending the Bengals linebacker’s rookie season. But Ward wasn’t penalized for the hit, which league officials deemed clean. And even his most brutal blocks rarely came off as malicious. In the clip below you can see the type of play Ward was infamous for, leading with his helmet to take out Ravens safety Ed Reed. But shortly after Reed hits the turf clutching his head, you can see Ward signaling Baltimore’s trainers to let them know Reed is hurt.
There are plenty of players who will be glad to see Ward go. “He tried to end people’s careers,” says Bengals safety Chris Crocker, who nonetheless thinks Ward belongs in the Hall of Fame. “And that’s not the way the game is supposed to be played.” But that combination of animus and respect is part of the legacy. When opposing defenses face a finely tuned weapon like Calvin Johnson, they have to be afraid that at any given moment they’ll give up six points. When they faced Hines Ward, they were just plain afraid.