There are a lot of things in football that are relative to the sport. If you're a 285 pound defensive end, you're considered "undersized." If you're a wide receiver or defensive back who runs a 4.6 in the forty-yard dash, you're considered "slow." If you're a 6'1" quarterback, you're considered "short." And, of course, regardless of what position you play in football, once you reach the age of 30, you're considered "old."
In the football world, Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward has never been considered very big or fast for his position. And relative to most receivers in the NFL, he doesn't seem very athletic. But make no mistake, Hines Ward has always been a tremendous athlete.
When we see him out there mixing it up with linebackers and defensive ends, it's easy to forget that Ward is a very talented wide receiver with tremendous ability. How many times have we witnessed Hines make amazing tip-toe catches near the sideline or diving grabs over-the-middle with defenders hanging all over him? Remember the AFC Championship Game in Denver when Ward tipped a pass away from Champ Bailey and managed to come down with the ball right before getting nailed by John Lynch? Hines obviously showed tremendous heart and guts, and he demonstrated that he is a very "headsy" player by keeping the football alive long enough to make the catch for a critical first down. But that play, made with with all-world talents like Champ Bailey and John Lynch fighting for the same football, was also a testament to the great athlete that number 86 has always been.
Hines Ward has always done a lot of things well, but I believe his knack for getting into the end zone may be his greatest talent. To quote Tunch Ilkin: "Nobody smells the goal line like Hines Ward."
Some might call it passion and determination that has led to some of Ward's most memorable touchdowns. Who can forget the one he scored against Chicago in 2005 when he spun around and ran through several Bears on his way to a 14 yard score that you had to see to believe. And what about that day in Atlanta in 2006 when Hines managed to maneuver his way on a 70 yard touchdown catch and run despite losing his shoe in the middle of the play? Yes, those were two great examples of Ward's desire to score a touchdown for his team against all odds, but they were also plays that were made by a high-caliber athlete.
Today, at 35, Ward must also deal with being considered old for a football player, but "Papa Smurf" is still a great athlete, and there is no better example of that than his second touchdown catch in Sunday's 38-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field.
In the boxscore, it just looks like a simple Ben Roethlsiberger to Hines Ward five-yard touchdown pass, but watching it live or on tv really gave you an appreciation for the athleticism that Hines displayed on the play. Ward took a quick pass from Roethlisberger near the two-yard line and, with one step, jumped over Titans' defensive back Michael Griffin and landed in the end zone. It was poetry in motion. Not bad for an "old man."
Right after Jerome Bettis ran over Brian Urlacher for a short touchdown run in that same Bears game I mentioned earlier, Steelers play-by-play man Bill Hilgrove said, "if you asked me to show you what the Bus is all about, I would point to that play right there."
Well, if I had to sum-up Hines Ward's career with one play, I would point to that touchdown against the Titans this past Sunday. On a play that literally took about two seconds, Hines demonstrated his heart, passion, guts, awareness AND athleticism.
There are many ways to describe Hines Ward, and "great athlete" should always be near the top of the list.