Rarely is the identity of a player, as well as his style of play, in complete and utter harmony with ideals of the franchise for which he plays. The black and gold way is a physical manner of play, steeped in the proud tradition of winning without compromising integrity and hard work.
When one embodies these values to the highest degree, he's one of Steeler Nation's own, right down to the DNA level.
Hines Ward's status as a "black and gold guy" simply has "super-authenticity."
Steelers fans will always vividly recall the tough-nosed receiver that was equally capable of laying the key block or snagging the key pass. The blue-collar heart of the Steel City still beats strongly, even during this pass-friendly era, giving those who bleed Black and Gold an added sense of pride when they refer to Hines Ward as the most "physically dominant wide receiver of all time."
Unlike most athletes, the Pittsburgh icon's career moments stem from three distinct categories: talent (play-making), physicality (blocking) and character. During his career in the Steel City, Ward bonded with all of us through all three of these forums, each of which is represented in this ranking.
While the following countdown reflects back on the career of one of the Steelers' legends, every fan will continue to carry more than 13 remarkable memories given to them by No. 86.
After being awkwardly tackled in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens, many wondered how effective—if at all—Ward could be if he played in Super Bowl XLIII.
In the spirit of tenacity, Ward had his modern-day Lynn Swann moment, albeit not as graceful or iconic.
On the first pass of Super Bowl XLIII, Ben Roethlisberger connected with a wide-open Ward, whose 38-yard reception got the offense into gear. A near-touchdown drive ended with a field goal that would ultimately be critical to the outcome.
Though he limped back to the sideline, Ward's demonstration of willpower and dedication gave the black and gold a jolt of energy. Likewise, it served notice to everyone along the Pittsburgh sideline that if Ward could produce in spite of his injury, there was no reason to give anything less than 100 percent.
Months removed from a painful AFC Championship Game loss to New England, Hines Ward was among the Steelers most determined to exact a small measure of revenge.
With the longest catch of his career, "Psycho" Ward sent the Heinz Field crowd into a frenzy.
Mere moments after Tom Brady led the Pats on a touchdown drive capped by a four-yard Corey Dillon run, Big Ben and the Steelers took the field hoping to answer.
On a quick slant to Ward, the crafty receiver split two Patriots defensive backs and sprinted untouched down the sideline for an 85-yard touchdown reception. It was a reminder of Hines' craftiness, deceptive speed and ability to come through at the opportune moment.
Sadly, the Steelers lost that game, 23-20, a result cemented by Brady's 31-for-41 performance that ended with 12 straight fourth quarter completions. Early on, with the Steelers dominating, Big Ben hit Antwan Randle El for a 40-yard gain that appeared to set up another score.
However, instead of extending their early lead (10-7), the receiver attempted a lateral to... you guessed it!... Hines Ward, an unwise effort (translation: boneheaded play) that resulted in a turnover.
Despite the loss to New England, Ward helped the cause with a career milestone, and in a few months, he would make a far bigger—even if not long—catch in Super Bowl XL.
NFL receivers are not "supposed to be" tremendous hitters and physical blockers.
In the essence of being a "Pittsburgh guy," Hines Ward was both, and Keith Rivers discovered the penalty for not keeping your head on a swivel in 2008.
While I would not wish such injury on any NFL player, the block—which was proximate to the action on the field—was perfectly legal. It was not made from behind, and Ward led with his shoulder and chest, delivering a brutal hit on Rivers, who was headed toward the ball-carrier and facing the sideline, with no awareness upfield.
By that point, the scouting report on Ward was pretty clear: know where the guy is...
Clearly, Rivers didn't know.
While detractors use this play as one of the examples for asserting Hines Ward as a dirty player, I'd argue their purview with simple NFL logistics:
The block, while violent and arguably more physical than necessary, fell within the NFL rules and, as such, was a clean (a.k.a., not dirty) hit. Beyond the severity, the action was engaged in the vicinity of the ball carrier, further justifying Ward's RESPONSIBILITY to block Rivers.
Moreover, regarding the force behind the block, NFL players are expected to make split-second decisions that can be the difference between a first down, touchdown or (worst case) takedown.
How can one realistically expect Hines to take a half measure so close to the on-field action? Or, more accurately, one cannot blame him for NOT taking the half measure. Finishing in football is finishing, not half-finishing.
On November 7, 2004, Hines Ward got the opportunity to mock Terrell Owens, known as T.O.... In this case, the acronym translates to mean twice over.
One week earlier, Owens caught a critical late-game touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens, and he immediately engaged in mocking Ray Lewis' signature entrance/big play dance.
Boys being boys...
Well, Hines Ward is a great dancer in his own right as we all know, and his impression of Chad Ochocinco's river dance barely missed the list.
Against Owens, the mocking was more simple: the all-but patented flapping of wings. Owens, a newly christened Eagle, had done much to deserve a taste of his own medicine, including tearing down fans' signs and pulling Sharpies from his socks after touchdowns.
Ward's two scores put the Steelers on top of the undefeated Eagles by scores of 7-0 and 14-0, respectively.
Hines put the pigskin on the ground, placed one foot on the ball, stood poised, flexed for the crowd and began flapping his limbs like a bird.
An annoyed Owens watched along the sideline, fake smile having been reduced to a cold stare. If ever anyone deserved a jagged pill, Owens certainly deserved those TWO.
The Steelers destroyed the Eagles, 27-3, in a game that could have been far worse.
Against the Falcons in 2006, Ward had a career afternoon, catching eight passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns.
Despite the Steelers loss, 41-38, one of those scores stood out amidst the rest as one of the receiver's greatest career plays.
Trailing 28-24, things looked grim for the Black and Gold, who had lost Ben Roethlisberger to injury earlier in the contest.
Charlie Batch fired down the middle of the field, spotting Ward behind all-pro corner and alleged fastest man in the NFL, DeAngelo Hall.
Not only did Ward make the reception and turn up the left sideline for a 70-yard touchdown, he also out-ran the acclaimed Hall... with only one shoe!
Hines Ward began eclipsing records in 2005, and many of those feats are featured in our countdown. In the final third of his career, team records and milestones that features a long string of zeroes seemed like monthly, if not weekly, occurrences.
Like a string of dominoes, Ward began knocking down illustrious career bench-markers, one after the other...
Early in 2010, the Steelers began their season without Ben Roethlisberger, and they needed their key players to step up in his absence and aid quarterback Dennis Dixon.
On opening day at Heinz Field, No. 86 satisfied this need, catching six passes for 108 crucial yards in a win over the Falcons.
With the fine Week 1 performance, Ward eclipsed 11,000 yards receiving. Also notable was his 900th catch, his fifth reception of the afternoon, which put him in an elite class of only a dozen other all-time NFL receivers.
Yet, you know how the old saying goes: the only thing better than 11,000 is 12,000!
Well, okay... perhaps that isn't verbatim. Still, Hines took care of another century marker in yardage, earning the "12K club" designation on a 12-yard reception at home against the Bengals in 2011. Indeed, Heinz Field got to revel in the latter achievement as well.
It was fitting. Sentimental. Touching. Emotional.
And, foremost, real. Real love.
But, despite all of these things, I didn't see it coming. Others may have called for it, either for faith in Hines' loyalty to the team, or a cynicism about whether he would be offered a decent contract by any other NFL squad. I didn't. I saw another desperate team, quite possibly in the vein of Franco Harris or Emmitt Smith, tempting Hines with an offer.
Nevertheless, with little forewarning, Pittsburgh fans shared a bittersweet moment when Hines Ward cemented himself among the five favorite athletes in team history by retiring from the team with the type of dignity that defined his tenure.
For those who wonder if there is any loyalty in today's sports world, watch the video if only just to be reminded of what playing for the best organization in sports can do for your heart!
Any true Steelers fan that was even remotely lucid for the event recalls the "beautiful" stormy evening when Hines Ward jacked up Ed Reed!
On a rainy Monday Night during the 2007 season, the Baltimore secondary took a two-way beating from the Pittsburgh Steelers' receivers.
First, they allowed Ben Roethlisberger a career effort despite the elements. The quarterback completed 13-of-16 passes with deadly efficiency, and five of those throws turned into first half touchdowns!
However, the pain didn't end on the stats sheet.
Hines Ward added a layer of physical pain to the team's mental misery, particularly for safety Ed Reed.
The two players are synonymous with their teams, and they help to symbolize the great modern rivalry. As such, Ward's pancaking of Reed was demonstrative of the white-washing (rainy day pun shamelessly intended) occurring at the expense of Baltimore's pride.
Before a prime-time audience, Ward surpassed John Stallworth as the Pittsburgh Steelers' all-time leading pass catcher.
Against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday Night Football, No. 86 snagged his 538th career reception. The Steelers won the game, 27-14.
During the contest, which came just prior to a three-game losing streak that threatened the team's Super Bowl XL Championship season, Ward caught eight passes for 124 yards, including a reverse touchdown pass from Antwan Randle El on a play that would be seen again on a much grander stage.
His third catch of the night secured the record. No other Steelers player has more than 358 receptions.
While Ward became the leading pass catcher in team history in 2005, he had to wait two years before he could topple the rest of Stallworth's illustrious franchise-leading body of work.
Remember the comparison of Steelers' receiving records to dominoes that was established earlier in the countdown? In 2007, Ward took down the rest of the team-owned dominoes.
Hines would become the team's leading touchdown receiver, snagging his 64th score on Sunday Night Football against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Fittingly, Ward found a soft spot in the middle of the defense ("Hines" territory) before diving into the end zone with a Bengals player draped atop him. It was Ward doing what he did best!
Weeks later, in a 41-24 Steelers win over the hapless Rams, Ward became the all-time yards leader as well, further cementing himself as the black and gold's greatest receiver.
While many would argue with the placement of this moment on this list, particularly so high-ranked, this classic response by Ward to a devastating loss in the 2004-05 AFC Championship Game was (in my opinion) the one character moment that signed, notarized and sealed Ward's place in the hearts of Steelers fans.
Rarely has such humanity been so clearly demonstrated as it was when Ward broke into tears, showing his emotion so candidly for all to see. Upset over the notion of Jerome Bettis retiring without earning a championship, Hines' tears ought as well have been the tears of Steelers Country.
Deep down, fans grieved with him, particularly following a painful ending to a 15-1 season which halted the winning streak of rookie Big Ben.
More importantly, however, nobody knew what the future held for "The Bus," and players who came together for one last meeting felt as though they had blown the last great chance for Bettis to retire as a champion.
Thankfully, that was not the case.
During his famous words, Ward opened up those typically closed doors and showed fans a glimpse of something they rarely get to see: the player's soul.
- Jerry Rice 1,549
- Tony Gonzalez 1,108
- Marvin Harrison 1,102
- Cris Carter 1,101
- Tim Brown 1,094
- Isaac Bruce 1,024
- Terrell Owens 1,078
- Hines Ward 1,000
In last year's season finale against the Cleveland Browns (who else?), the most productive receiver in team history propelled himself upon an elite pantheon. Forget that he lost yardage on the play; sometimes, a moment has to be viewed within the context of a much bigger picture.
Statistically, while Ward himself may not consider it his most defining achievement, it is absolutely his most separating, parting him from peers both pedestrian...and elite!
Is Hines Ward a lock for the Hall of Fame?
If enshrinement day arrives for No. 86, make no mistake that this elite career achievement serves as the icing on the cake.
Personally, I see no reason that Ward should not join his elite peers in Canton. However, a statistical look at other Hall of Fame receivers provides both supporting and contrary evidence.
Could anything else have possibly topped this list?
Hines Ward earned Super Bowl MVP honors as the key contributor to Pittsburgh finally bringing home a fifth Lombardi Trophy and delivering the all-too coveted "One for the Thumb" that the Steel City had so longed for!
While his game-clinching touchdown from Randle El remains the quintessential career-defining play for No. 86, his key reception late in the first half of Super Bowl XL was equally important.
Trailing 3-0 and facing 3rd-and-forever, Big Ben rolled to his left and stopped directly at the line of scrimmage to survey his options. Roethlisberger threw down the middle, and it appeared initially that his wobbling duck could well end up another in a series of ill-advised decisions on the night.
However, Hines Ward made an amazing catch just in front of the goal line, and the Steelers took advantage of the goal line situation to secure a first half lead, 7-3.
The biggest moment of Ward's professional career came in the fourth quarter. Antwan Randle El took a reverse, came around right end, and lobbed a beautiful spiral down the field that landed perfectly into the mitts of No. 86.
As Ward jubilantly jumped in the end zone, smile emblazoning his face, the rest of Steeler Nation jumped with him!