It's hard to imagine former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward not reacting to catching an elbow in his grill. It's hard to see Ward tussling among a sea of bodies and not giving back what he's getting.
It's been hard seeing Ward on TV describing the action, not creating it.
He's creating action, just not the combative and aggressive kind he was known for in the NFL. Ward is training for IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, in October.
Ward spoke with Behind The Steel Curtain on behalf of the Got Chocolate Milk campaign, which is documenting Ward's preparation for the event, named Become ONE.
A sign hung on a wall at Heinz Field for the vast majority of Ward's career, displaying a cut up of his name, "Psycho Ward" with his number "86" in the middle of it.
The obvious implication was Ward played with reckless abandon, as if he was out of his mind.
That sign isn't anywhere to be seen in Ward's training videos as he prepares for the world championship. But the mentality must be the same - if not moreso. Swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles clearly is not something done by the average person.
For context, Ward finished his career with 12,083 receiving yards, or, 36,249 feet. The triathlon will consist of more than 20 times that distance.
"It's definitely insane," Ward said, laughing after he said it, followed by what felt like his trademark smile through the phone early Tuesday morning. "I definitely gotta be a little crazy, but I love challenges."
That challenge carries with it significant weight with Ward, who spent his first year out of major football in almost 20 years in 2012. "It feels kind of like getting the ball at the end of the Super Bowl," he said. "(Finishing it) would rank right up there with the Super Bowl MVP award."
Unlike football, Ward mentioned, it's an individual achievement.
"There are people who vote for you, and your teammates set you up for everything you get individually," Ward said. "With this, you go out and compete with yourself."
Triathletes are on their own island, so to speak, but they're crammed together with hundreds of their closest enemies. In football, 11 players moving in theoretically the same direction doesn't match the chaos of all of those people swimming together in the same direction, all individually, no real team goal imagined.
"It's overwhelming at first," Ward said of the action of the event. "People are throwing elbows, banging into each other. I really just try to stay out of their way."
That's not the Ward Steelers fans have come to know and love. But he's also not doing the ordinary. Perhaps it's a Ravens fan who "accidentally" lands a glancing blow off Ward's head as he comes up for air. He wouldn't know. It's not exactly faceless competition but it isn't teams in different colors doing battle, either.
Like he said, you have to be a little crazy. Maybe Ward is crazy. That level of pathological competitiveness isn't found among everyone. It's an itch that can't be scratched by improving one's broadcasting career, either.
Rubbing, not throwing, elbows with Costas
Ward flashed that popular smile during the football season on Football Night in America. Sharing a set with Bob Costas, Tony Dungy, Peter King, Rodney Harrison and Mike Florio, there arguably isn't a collection of more well-known football types in the business.
"(Costas) is kind of the Godfather of the broadcasting world," Ward said. "Learning from him was a great experience. He was very helpful."
More of Ward's experience can be seen at the college level, doing analysis of Notre Dame football for NBC's broadcasts and studio shows. But he worked frequently enough on Sunday Night Football to get to know Florio, the founder of Pro Football Talk. Ward said he spoke with Florio often, admitting Florio, a West Virginia native, comes from a family of Steelers fans (he didn't say if Florio himself was a Steelers fan at any point, but the apple, as they say, doesn't fall far from the tree).
"Mike's a cool guy," Ward said. "It was fun for him to hear the stories about the Steelers. He's also been very helpful."
Jarvis Jones, Bulldogs and suits
Training didn't leave Ward with much time to follow the Steelers recent draft. He knew enough of it to notice the Steelers selected fellow Georgia Bulldog Jarvis Jones in the first round.
Congrats @sacmanjones_29. Welcome to Steeler Nation! Papa Smurf is proud of you, young Bulldawg. If you need... fb.me/Qny32s0Y— Hines Ward (@mvp86hinesward) April 26, 2013
"He was awesome against Florida," Ward said of Jones, easily recalling his alma mater's biggest rivalry game. The Bulldogs' defense suffocated the Gators, and Jones had 13 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles.
"He's a perfect match with the Steelers defense."
Ward had enough knowledge to give snippets of thought on each of the Steelers' first five picks - Jones, Le'Veon Bell ("The Steelers need a running back. He's a workhorse bruiser, definitely a Steelers running back"), Markus Wheaton ("he's a good player. They can use him a lot of different ways"), Shamarko Thomas ("plays the game hard,") and Landry Jones ("very productive in college, a young guy you can mold. Hard nosed going out and playing hard").
Perhaps not coincidentally, Jones appeared at his first press conference as he was introduced as the Steelers' first round draft pick, wearing a black and charcoal gray suit with a gold tie; very much the same look Ward was sporting at his retirement press conference last year.
"Young kid's got style," Ward said, laughing.
State of the Steelers
One aspect of the current Steelers team that's been attacked recently is the level of leadership they have, or appear to have. Ward and multiple other veterans have been jettisoned in recent months, leaving at least what seems like a group devoid of several experienced leaders.
"It's just a lot to lose that much leadership, they drafted Pittsburgh Steelers guys this year."
Ward says he still keeps in touch with Steelers wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and recently spoke with former Steelers WR Mike Wallace, after he signed a five-year contract with the Miami Dolphins. He mentioned outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, as well, noting his ability to bounce back this season, and that Woodley is still one of the more productive players in the game.
"I am still sort of like the older brother," Ward said. "I like that role, and I miss being around those guys."
Ward slipped up twice in the interview, referring to the Steelers as "we." He was quick to correct himself the second time, but the first reference went unchecked. He slipped up in his first analysis opportunity, opining on the Steelers' Week 1 game at Denver, referring to them as "we" then too.
Some things just won't die easily. It seems tied to that same competitive itch he's scratching with the triathlon. It seems like the action itself, more than the accomplishment, draws Ward to his post-career choices.
Not that he doesn't look back fondly. Or perhaps, competitively.
Rivalry with the Ravens
The Steelers are slated to take on their arch rival Baltimore on Thanksgiving night this season. It will be the first time this game will be played in a decade and a half without Ward or Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis - the respective faces of the Steelers and Ravens' epic rivalry.
A tone of nostalgia appeared in Ward's voice talking about the rivalry, and the upcoming game.
"I'm always gonna miss the rivalry with Baltimore. I hoped we-the Steelers- opened against Baltimore, put them on Thanksgiving. Eat, then head out into the backyard to play some football, the Turkey Bowl. Then, watching a great rivalry."
Ward spoke respectfully of the Ravens in their Super Bowl championship run this past season, noting he's happy someone in the division won it all.
"I'm happy for those guys," he said, not exactly backing away from comments he made in his playing days about how the Ravens needed to beat the Steelers to get to the championship level. "The Steelers beat them this season, nearly beat them twice, so they can take something positive away from that."