I had half-jokingly engaged in an argument with a friend of mine via email about the Vikings signing former Steelers WR Hines Ward. Why not, I contended (always a strong point). The Vikings have no receivers outside Harvin anyway, why wouldn't they value a 14-year veteran with two rings?
He was adamantly against the signing of the guy he knew I idolized since the day we met in college.
He greeted me via email Tuesday with a simple one-liner: "Are we (the Vikings) supposed to sign a guy who's planning to retire?"
The argument took place a while ago, and I wasn't sure who he was talking about (I've taunted him with all kinds of options, including signing WR Mike Wallace and giving up the No. 3 overall pick). I asked him simply "who?"
It didn't dawn on me he was talking about Ward. He responded, "your hero."
I rushed outside, being the office I'm working in does not allow Internet or cell phone usage, and scrambled around to find someone who could write the story at noon ET (thank you, Rebecca).
The office sits in a converted strip mall, and while there aren't any restaurants or stores, they kept the building-wide sound system going, so you heard music all day in the common area. Until last week, it was always country music, but they recently switched over to Oldies.
I was walking back to my side of the building, when I heard the beginning strains of "Sleepwalk" by Santo & John, the beautifully somber instrumental played at the end of the movie "La Bamba" (here's a link).
It's the kind of song no one can hear and not think nostalgically, if not sadly, about something. Or, it was absolutely the last thing I wanted to hear at that particular moment.
The song used to make me think of the ending of La Bamba, just as the radio announcer tells a nation Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper had died in a plane crash. Despite being recorded in 1959, it will now forever remind me of where I was when I felt as old as I ever have.
Not that I (or everyone else in SteelerNation) didn't already go through this when Ward was released. Tuesday was different. It confirmed the Steelers were correct in their assessment. As comforting as a kick to the stomach, Ward confirmed for himself the lack of interest on the open market. It wasn't just the Steelers who didn't want him; no one wanted him.
I'm happy he was able to retire a Steeler. That's the Steelers fan in me. The young college kid in me who excitedly bought a Hines Ward jersey in 2000, wanting to be unique and stand out, wanted to see Ward play another season. That version of me wanted to see him roll back the clock, grab another 65 passes for a younger team on the rise, needing veteran leadership.
I wasn't ready to let Ward go. I didn't want to accept mortality. Without a doubt, no one could complain about a 14-year run in the NFL, particularly a third-round draft pick who'd been hearing about how old he is for the last seven of those 14 years.
Ward is the first, and only, Steeler of the post-Steel Curtain Generation to retire having spent 14 years with the club. His release and retirement will both be etched in the memories of all Steelers fans forever.
It was Jeff Hartings taking over for Dermontti Dawson. It was Dan Kreider replacing Jon Witman. It was Willie Parker taking over for Jerome Bettis. James Harrison replacing Joey Porter. Bill Cowher moving aside and replaced by Mike Tomlin. Add those five together, multiply it by 10, that's Ward's retirement. In fact, the only only who can touch it right now is NT Casey Hampton, who will most likely be in this position next year.
As the song played, and I blinked off tears while staring mindlessly at my phone, reality really set in. I thought it had before, but I was looking forward to watching him crack heads with someone else. I wanted to see his farewell tour, I didn't care who it was with.
That won't happen, though. No more 86 anywhere in the league. No more wide smile. No more tussles with opposing defensive backs. As the sun sets on this Steelers generation, we see the value of the one that came before it, and the bar gets set for the one replacing it.
I flashed to the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff game at Indianapolis. Ward snares a lofted pass from Roethlisberger outside the right hash. Ward lifts his feet off the ground as he always did when catching a pass, frog legs wider than his shoulders, and battled two defensive backs en route to another 15 yards after the catch. He drew a facemask penalty in the process. They showed the replay, and not only was Ward just as guilty as the offender was of facemasking, but you could see the bright smile on his face the entire time he was doing it.
It was as if he was playing a backyard game with his friends. It amused him greatly to make huge catches in huge games.
Thinking of it that way helped me come to acceptance. It used to be Plaxico Burress and Ward taking over as the sun set on Charles Johnson and Bobby Shaw. Now, it's Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown taking the symbolic torch. Just like Ben Roethlisberger taking the proverbial torch from stop-gap option Tommy Maddox and inconsistent Kordell Stewart, the Steelers will have a new pair of inside linebackers probably in each of the next two seasons.
The future's always bright in SteelerNation. It's proverbially sunny and 75 degrees with nary a cloud in the sky.
"Sleepwalk" is only about two and a half minutes long. Perhaps it's so short to prevent listeners from reveling in the past as much as the melody forces them to. It cuts off far too early to encapsulate every memory I have of Hines Ward. It was time to go back to work. It was time to again face reality.
The song was Hines Ward's career. Something deeply satisfying, and while I wished it could last forever, it had to end. The next song had to start.
I'm just fortunate enough to have been walking through the mall when it began, and I got to listen to it all the way through until it was over.
Now, I'm ready for the next song.