When news that Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward was released came out, I couldn't help but stare at my phone, gasping and sputtering in utter shock and disbelief. Okay, okay, we knew the day was most likely coming, but come on. Even his official Facebook page said that he didn't want to retire, he was ready to play more football, and he was doing everything in his power to retire as a Pittsburgh Steeler. And as fans, we just couldn't imagine the Steelers without him.
Hines Ward has always been one of my favorite players because he represents everything about the city of Pittsburgh we're the most proud of: he's tough, he's a great mentor, he's selfless, he's a team player, he's a great blocker even though he's a receiver, he's loyal, he's good-looking, and he flashes a smile bright enough to cut through the dreariest and grayest of skies (and boy do those skies get dreary and gray in Pittsburgh). On an even more personal note, he's half-Korean -- where I'm from -- and you certainly don't see many Korean NFL players nowadays. What he has done to break stereotypes, advocate for mixed children, and give back to his country and spread awareness in others speaks even more about his character than his ability and talent.
I've read all the official reports that say cutting him was best for the team. Blah blah blah. Salary cap room, he wouldn't get much playing time, if any, he's old, we need better, younger receivers, salary cap room, money, salary cap room, we need Mike Wallace, salary cap room. Blah blah blah. I guarantee you all that jargon that won't matter much, if at all, to Steelers fans.
We see a guy who's given his heart and soul to the city we both love. After 14 years, 1,000 catches, over 12,000 receiving yards, and 85 TDs receptions... his story in Pittsburgh is now over. And it's gut-wrenching. It's heart-breaking. It seems super-unfair, even though logically, it's the right decision. Ahem, so they say.
But who cares about right and wrong? Minus cynical, rich sports organizations that only care about (W)inning(!). Weren't the Steelers always a different kind of team? Didn't players always offer to adjust their salary in order to make things easier on management and the tough decisions they have to face (like this one)? Couldn't they have done something so he could play just one more season for the team and fans he loves? Seriously, there was nothing they could do?? There are so many questions, to which I doubt any of us Steelers fans will get satisfactory answers.
Let's just pray Hines doesn't go to Baltimore.
Hines may not be a Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown in terms of numbers or speed or stats, but he more than makes up for it in heart and leadership. He's the one who paved the way for receivers to take up more roles than catching and running. He contributes in any way he can. He showed receivers don't have to be divas who are afraid to hit. He's given us some of the best blocking highlights we've ever seen. He also stepped into the leadership role when The Bus left. You could even argue he helped mold Wallace and Brown into the kind of receivers they are today. That's something intangible, something you cannot coach. He's a living icon on the team. And I honestly can't say how profusely I'm going to miss him.
Ward will turn 36 next week and was due to earn $4 million next season. It's been reported that the Steelers didn't approach Ward about taking a pay cut in order to remain on the team, even though he's made it clear he was willing to take one. That makes the whole situation seem that much more confusing and unfair.
With the way Bruce Arians was fired and how new offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't speak for weeks after Haley was hired, you've gotta wonder how management is handling some of these biggest off-season moves. It's hard to say whether or not the offense will be able to successfully transition with all of these major changes next season, but of course, only time will tell. Without Hines, who can these younger players on offense turn to now when things get tough?
You can't argue that age and injuries plagued the Steelers last season. It was an up-and-down roller coaster that ended, for lack of a better word, abruptly. Of course changes needed to be made. But getting rid of Hines seemed like it should have been a last resort. There's business and money and age and talent involved, inevitably, but it certainly feels like Hines transcended all of those things when he smiled and took the field. What a cutthroat business.
It is comforting that, years from now, everyone will remember Hines as a Steeler, and hopefully he will make it into the Hall of Fame whenever he decides to retire. As he said, he'll always bleed black and gold, and we'll always cheer for him too. I really do believe this decision was tough on the Steelers and thought the players could have rallied around Hines to help him win another Super Bowl, just like they did for The Bus. But now we'll have to see Hines and his smile in another uniform, and that's not an image I'm going to happily picture during this incredibly long, perpetually more depressing, off-season.
So Hines, as a lifelong Steelers fan, I think I can speak on all Steelers fans' behalf by thanking you for everything you've done for us. You gave us a reason to tune in every Sunday because you constantly gave it your all. We won't ever take your talent, blood, sweat, and tears for granted. We'll never forget you leveling Ed Reed or wearing a Troy Polamalu wig while giving an interview. We'll miss your heart, your leadership, and your trademark smile. Thank you for the past 14 seasons, Hines. You are, in a word, irreplaceable.