Ward's health could determine Steelers' success in Super Bowl
For more than a decade, Hines Ward has been a mainstay in Pittsburgh
Ward hopes to overcome an injured knee and play in the Super Bowl
At 32, Ward provides stability and toughness to the receiving corps
TAMPA -- Hines Ward is not the fastest receiver in the NFL. He is not close to the biggest. If you made a list of the best receivers in football, you might make stops in Arizona (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin), New England (Randy Moss, Wes Welker) and Houston (Andre Johnson) long before you stumbled onto Ward in Pittsburgh.
But in more than a decade with the Steelers, no receiver has been more integral to his team's success. Not Moss, not Terrell Owens, nobody.
"That's the guy," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said of Ward, "[who] makes a lot of things happen in big ball games."
Besides Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, Ward is the player the Steelers can least afford to be without, and the story of Super Bowl XLIII may be how effective Ward can be despite spraining the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in Pittsburgh's AFC Championship victory.
Last week, while his teammates prepared for afternoon practice, Ward was sitting on a training table watching television with his leg propped up. Even through the glass, you could see he was smiling.
Along with undergoing rehab at the team's practice facility, Ward has woken up several times in the middle of the night to treat the knee with ice and electrical stimulation. An injury of his kind normally takes about a month to heal. Ward will be playing on it after only two weeks.
He said there was no way he was skipping the Super Bowl. If he had to do extra rehab to make it to Raymond James Stadium, it would be done.
"You know Hines is who he is because he's outside the box," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said last week. "He is different than most. I embrace that as opposed to resist that. What's right for Hines isn't necessarily right for us normal people. I recognize that he is different, and I'll see him at the stadium in Tampa."
Ward's sturdiness and ability to overcome injury has been a staple of his career. In 11 seasons, Ward has caught 800 passes and has missed just six games. His feistiness and blocking ability are the skills that separate him from other receivers.
Several years ago, when the Steelers receiving corps also featured Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El, it was fascinating to hear opposing coaches praise Ward. When Gregg Williams was the head coach in Buffalo, he asked Bills receiver Josh Reed to watch as much film on Ward that he could.
"I'm one of Hines Ward's biggest supporters," Williams said at the time. "Here's a guy that was a quarterback in college that moved to receiver, and now he's as tough and as physical as anybody. His teammates have so much respect for his ability to play the game."
Through the years, Ward has used his trips to the Pro Bowl to ask other receivers about route running and other fundamentals.
"I like to run [routes] different every time -- give it a stutter step, a lean or a head move," Ward said at the time. "You learn that. I remember as a rookie when I first got here, I thought the game was all speed. I was running so fast that I was out of control getting in and out of breaks. Now, the game has slowed down tremendously."
At 32, Ward is the veteran in a receiving corps blessed with youth. While Roethlisberger's deep passes to Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington have provided explosive moments for the Steelers this season, Ward has given stability and toughness, often by sacrificing his body against a safety or a linebacker on a downfield block.
One more time, this Sunday in Tampa, the Steelers will ask Ward for one more sacrifice. In truth, though, the Steelers don't have to ask. In sickness and in health, that is what Ward has always done.
On a team identified by iron will, who could imagine that a 6-foot, 205-pound receiver would be the greatest example of all?
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