By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Sometime shortly after the five-year waiting period surpasses, Hines Ward will be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That should be a lock. Maybe not on the first ballot, but with 954 receptions for 11,702 career yards and 83 touchdowns, four Pro Bowl selections and two Super Bowl titles in 13 NFL seasons — including an MVP performance in Super Bowl XL — it shouldn’t take long for voters to enshrine Ward in Canton, Ohio.
As Ward and the Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4) prepare to face the Green Bay Packers (13-6) in Super Bowl XLV Feb. 6 at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, one question remains. If the Steelers win their third Lombardi Trophy in six years, will Ward retire?
“I don’t know,” Ward said. “My mom asked me that the other day. I really haven’t thought about it, to be honest. I don’t want to make an emotional decision based off that. I know Jerome went out on top, and stuff like that.
“But I don’t know. To be honest with you, I really haven’t thought about it. I just want to be singly focused on winning this ball game and figure out what is going to happen after that. So, let’s win the game first, and then we’ll see.”
Ward already has taken on a mentoring role for the young Steelers wideouts. He took Santonio Holmes under his wing during the Super Bowl XLIII MVP’s first couple years, and he’s done the same with Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
“It’s been invaluable to work with Hines as a rookie in the NFL,” Sanders said. “He’s a future Hall of Famer, for sure, an a great teacher. He’s seen it all, and he’s happy to tell us about it. It’s a privilege to work with him.”
Ward has been described as a singles hitter by one local media member in the past, something that the player and his teammates have disputed, but he still has played at a high level in recent years. Ward caught 95 passes for 1,167 yards last year and 81 for 1,043 in 2008.
He had 59 catches this season, one behind team leader Wallace, for 755 yards and five touchdowns. Ward had six seasons with more than 1,000 receiving yards, including four straight from 2001-04, with a season high 112 catches for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2002.
“He’s a great receiver and deserves all the credit he gets,” Wallace said. “He makes plays every game, and he’s always leaving me messages. You know it’s going to be a long message when Hines calls. I just listen, set the phone down and go do something, and then come back. You won’t miss much.
“He always repeats himself. But don’t get me wrong, he always has something to say. I don’t know what Hines is going to do after this season. I think he should keep playing. He’s still a great receiver, and he’s the best blocking receiver in the league. We would miss him a lot, so I don’t want him to retire.”
In previous years, Ward has been quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s primary receiver, his go-to guy when the Steelers need a first-down catch. It would be unfair to describe Ward as a secondary receiver now, because he’s made some big plays this season, but Roethlisberger has other players available now.
“I try to keep everybody humble and grounded and realize that if I’m running my decoy route to get you open, then I want the same respect from you,” Ward said. “I’ve got a great group of young guys to work with.
“They’re great students of the game who want to get better. When I’ve got guys like that, it makes my job easier. I don’t have to sit there and be on them all the time. I still get on them from time to time, but not all the time.”
Ward and fellow 13-year veterans Flozell Adams and Charlie Batch, 14-year pro James Farrior and 12-year player Aaron Smith certainly are in the twilight of their NFL careers. Smith has had the past few seasons cut short due to injuries, so this could be the swan song for many or all of them.
“We know that we don’t have a lot of time left in our careers,” Ward said. “This may be the best opportunity that we have to win the Super Bowl. You really appreciate it more. … We’re excited about it, and we aren’t happy to just be playing in another Super Bowl. We want to win it all.”
And for Ward, that could be the beginning for the end of his Steelers career.