The Jersey Rules are something I've strictly maintained for several years now. The Committee elected to curate and uphold these rules has never before issued an in-season decree.
It's truly a historical day, but The Committee is pleased to announce the addition of a new rule, its first-ever in-season change, and with it, a new tradition: "The Commemoration Rule," a.k.a. The Hines Ward Rule.
The Hines Ward rule states a jersey of the fan's choice, with the fan's own declaration for doing so, may be worn to commemorate a specific player on a specific date once each year. The stipulation is the event in question must be worthy of historical commemoration. If the fan genuinely needs to ask whether the event in question is worthy, then it is not.
To honor this rule, I will be wearing my Hines Ward jersey, purchased in August of 2000, for every Steelers Week 17 game now and forever. The jersey will never again be washed, and it will be placed in a vacuum-sealed bag and kept out of humidity and daylight in the time before and after each Steelers Week 17 game.
Ward's 1,000th reception is an accomplishment few outside Pittsburgh will ever truly appreciate. Much of that statement is based on the chorus of boos cascading from the mostly empty Cleveland Browns Stadium. The list of players who have accomplished this rare achievement is as well decorated as any other club outside the Hall of Fame in all of football. Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Terrell Owens and Isaac Bruce.
Only Ward and Rice have 1,000 catches and more than one Super Bowl championship. They are also the only Super Bowl MVPs on this list.
But only one of them has an anti-contact rule named after him. Imagine that, in an age in which offensive players are given a regulatory cushion, Ward is the one hitting defensive players to the point they regulated him.
I decided on the purchase of Ward's jersey due to the multi-faceted tough-guy role he played on the Steelers' smashmouth offense in 2000 (a highly underrated team that caught fire toward the end of the year, and would have made some serious noise had they made the playoffs at 9-7). He was emerging. He was not well-known outside of Pittsburgh. He was the kind of player a team keeps for the long-haul.
In other words, he was the perfect buy. I hit the jackpot early, as Ward blew up in 2001, and I already had a year's worth of wear on the jersey. Each time Ward would catch one of his 52 first downs that season, people all gave me high-fives, or patted the No. 86 on my back. I felt like a trend-setter. One of the first to wear what would eventually be one of the most popular jerseys in team history.
He went to four consecutive Pro Bowls, and won the Super Bowl XL MVP, all the while I cheered ardently for him. He went from a grunt with skills limited enough to drop him to the third round in 1998 to 123 receiving yards in the Super Bowl.
With Ward, it was never what he was doing as much as it was how he was doing it. How does a receiver with a 4.65 40-yard dash time keep getting open? How does a guy at 200 pounds lead-block between the tackles? How is a guy so reviled by the rest of the league so passionately loved by his fan base?
Again, it was how he was doing it. He bloodied former Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson when he was with the Ravens - probably the single moment that created the most intense rivalry in football. It ticked Woodson off so badly, word is Woodson temporarily put an end to a business deal the two had begun.
He defied logic in so many ways, he was the perfect face for a team that frequently won when, on paper, it shouldn't have. The borderline miraculous run in 2004 came with just four games with more than 200 passing yards. Ward's 1,004 yards was 36 percent of the team's receiving yardage. Along with that, he cemented his legacy as the best blocking receiver ever to play the game.
The way he lost two yards on his 1,000th reception bummed me out at first. I'll be honest, I was calling for him to get one more catch. Something a bit more legitimate than a play the team, to my knowledge, hasn't run since Mike Mularkey told Tommy Maddox to flip the ball to Amos Zereoue.
But after watching the replay, what I saw was perfection. Ward, the consummate team player, took the ball, and jogged off the field. That smile was arguably never brighter in a regular season game.
It's difficult to consider, but we may have seen the last regular season game Ward will play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. A play designed specifically for the reception, not the yards, that the team probably hasn't run in years got Ward his 1,000th catch. His hefty contract unsuccessfully bolstered by a lack of justifying production. Young, studly receivers, Ward's pupils, who seem ready to take on the big stage on their own.
There's little doubt Ward will announce his retirement in the locker room of Lucas Oil Stadium, provided the Steelers are good enough to get to, and win, the Super Bowl. Not an impossible dream, and no Steelers fan would want anything less.
Dealing with reality, though, better and less injured Steelers teams have fallen short of that goal. If that goal fails to materialize, there's a difficult conversation on the horizon. The organization forced to deal with the black-and-white bottom line will likely ask its true leader to take a paycut in order to continue with the team.
Does Ward have something left? Probably. Very few teams, if any, have as much talent at the receiver position, top to bottom, than the Steelers. There are talent-starved teams that could use a veteran upgrade. Many players have left the Steelers, and many have gone on record as saying they regretted the decision when staying or leaving was their choice. Bryant McFadden, Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote and Byron Leftwich all left recently, only to come back.
Maybe Ward recognizes that, quietly takes a paycut to play out the remainder of his contract and retires after a Hall of Fame career in Pittsburgh. Rest assured, though, he won't get any more shovel passes. It seems more likely the Steelers would take the money Ward would sacrifice and use it to ink a multi-year deal for Jerricho Cotchery.
If Ward doesn't remain in Pittsburgh, and he goes somewhere else, I'll only partially acknowledge it. I'll hope he calls the Steelers and asks for a one-day contract so he can retire here. While it seems improbable, I'm accepting that it only seems that way because I want it to be improbable. I'm still stuck in the days of Ward's rising star. Maybe my denial of Ward growing old is my own denial of my mortality. Ward's one of the last guys on the team older than me, and his departure is the closing of an incredible chapter for both the Steelers and myself.
I can't think of any other way to honor one of my favorite players. A new jersey rule and a yearly commemoration seems to be the best.
And I'll probably have a smile on my face when I wear it, even if the Steelers play to the equivalent of a two-yard loss.