Steelers Set to Release Hines Ward

PITTSBURGH PA - DECEMBER 19: Hines Ward #86 of the Pittsburgh Steelers enters the stadium before the game against the New York Jets at Heinz Field on December 19 2010 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

Four plays into Week 7 of the 2008 season, Hines Ward authored perhaps his most lasting legacy in Pittsburgh.

Squaring off against an overmatched Bengals team, Ward released on a flare pass to TE Matt Spaeth, before coming back toward the ball - the way an aggressive football player should.

Ward sized up his target, rookie LB Keith Rivers - a guy who had at least 50 pounds and two inches on Ward.

Rivers, who was in active pursuit of Spaeth, didn't see Ward coming.

POW!

There is now, and forever will be, a rule attributed to the fiercest blocking receiver this game has ever seen. There is a Hines Ward Rule because Hines Ward rules. The league was forced to change the game because a 6-foot, 200-pound former quarterback turned 3rd-round wide receiver - with no ACL in his left knee - does not play nice with others in the sandbox.

Ward played his last game as a Steeler in the 2011 playoffs, an overtime loss at Denver. The game will see the last of Ward soon enough, because there will never again be another player like Hines Ward.

Never before has a highly accomplished offensive player been feared because of his desire. Defensive players don't like the fact Ward doesn't ask for permission to smack them in the mouth. Defensive players didn't like Hines Ward, period.

An instigator, a firebrand. Ward led the smashmouth Steelers during years of dominant run games. He managed to catch 80-100 passes during those years, along with lead-blocking for future Hall of Fame RB Jerome Bettis. He also managed to lay out several defensive players, regardless of size, stature or score.

Rivers was certainly no exception, but it was the last ferocious hit the league would allow little Ward to inflict. Defensive players were now protected from violent offensive players. The whining from defensive players who didn't learn the cardinal rule of open field defense - keep your head on a swivel - led to a rule named after Ward.

Maybe they should call it the Keith Rivers Rule. A rule protecting Tom Brady is called the "Tom Brady Rule."

Ward became the poster child for moderately-sized players for an entire generation. While that generation listened to countless broadcasters and stuffed shirts praise every movement of Brett Favre as "youthful," and "exuberant," there was Ward, much more in-line with Favre's imprinted legacy of simply "being a football player."

How many Super Bowl MVPs are known for blocking? How many of them have won team-awarded Walter Payton Man of the Year trophies? And how many of them have 1,000 career catches?

This may come off as announcing Ward's retirement from the game, but Steelers fans know they're going to have to usher Ward out of the game with armed security guards. He's got game left in him.

Ward will play again. He'll bash someone (legally or not, neither we nor he cares). He'll smile.

And we'll all think fondly of him, hoping -- praying -- one day he returns to Heinz Field to celebrate his championships; hoping -- praying -- that he knows that none of us will ever look at anyone else wearing No. 86 and think he could ever have the same kind of impact on a team that Ward did.

We do hope the throngs of fans of his next team will get to share in what Steelers fans have appreciated for the past 14 years. Aggressiveness. Leadership. Will. Fun.

There isn't a set of four words that can describe Hines Ward any better. Unless they are these three:

Hall. Of. Fame.

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