Overmatched for three years, Kim sent Hines to spend the summer of 1986 with his father, who was by then remarried for a second time. "I got my butt whipped all summer long," says Ward. "It was hell on me." Some of the spankings, which Ward says were incessant, were accompanied by admonitions about respecting his mother. His father denies hitting him, though he admits he isn't certain. "I know I threatened to whip him, I know I was harsh with him," says Hines Sr. "I don't think I ever did whip him, but I can't really recall." In one way or another, that summer righted Hines. He went back to his mother as a 10-year-old with a fresh perspective. "I said to myself, This is my mother and this is how it's going to be. I'd better grow up," he recalls.
He opened his eyes to what his mother was doing for him. How she would rise before dawn to go to a job preparing airline meals but leave his breakfast on the table, waiting. How she would return at night, prepare his supper and then head for another job, across the street at a convenience store. How she was constantly exhausted, but she was able to buy him everything he desired. "I had the Air Jordan shoes, I had a little Ford Escort when I got my driver's license," recalls Ward. Kim didn't know enough English to help her son with his schoolwork, but she implored him to do it. She also begged him to stay clean, away from the drugs and petty crime that drew so many kids in the neighborhood.
Hines developed into a good student and an exceptional athlete. As a quarterback, he flourished in the Florida State-style shotgun spread offense at Forest Park High and was recruited aggressively by Florida State, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Tennessee. The Florida Marlins also offered him a $25,000 bonus to play baseball, but he turned them all down and chose Georgia, where he could remain close to his mother.
Kim worked and saved with such vigor that she now lives in an immaculate, three-bedroom ranch house in a middle-class subdivision in the Atlanta suburb of Rex. She also owns her car and the one that Hines drives in Athens—staggering possessions for a woman who has seldom worked for more than minimum wage.
Hines's trophies adorn the hearth and mantle of the fireplace in her living room. There is also a picture of Kim at age 23 on the mantel, and the difference between the beautiful young woman in the photograph and the frail and somber 48-year-old today is a lifetime that has been measured in hours and shifts. "My life, I would say, has been a hard life and a sad life," she says. "But in my country, a mother cares for a child first." She knows of her ex-husband's reappearance, and when that subject is mentioned, her delicate face turns harsh. "We not hear anything for many years," Kim says, crying. "Now he thinks Hines will go pro, and he wants money."
Hines Ward Sr. is an old 43. He works days as a corrections officer at a state prison in Monroe and nights as a produce clerk at Wal-Mart. When Hines Jr. was in high school, his father took out a mail subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to read about his games. He drove to Atlanta to his son's high school graduation, something that tore Kim up and confused Hines Jr. Now he's coming to games, which he says isn't because of his son's success but because he truly wants to build a relationship. "I don't know if my son hates me or likes me," says the father. "Sometimes I think he's mad at me, and I accept that. I didn't understand responsibility. I was young. All I can say is I was young."
Ward came to Georgia in 1994 to be a quarterback, then found himself watching on the sidelines that first August as a fourth-stringer. One afternoon two weeks into the season, Terrell Davis went down and Goff needed a running back. Goff knew that Ward had been elusive as a high school quarterback, so he sent him in at tailback, called a sweep and watched him weave 50 yards through the first-team defense. Even though Ward was a freshman who had never played a down at running back, he started the next game in place of Davis and ran for 117 yards on 14 carries against Northeast Louisiana. Two weeks later he went for 137 yards on 22 carries and caught five passes for 24 more against Alabama. After Davis (who has become one of the best running backs in the NFL) returned at midseason, Goff sometimes played him at fullback to give Ward more time at tailback. "Hines just had so much talent, they didn't know what to do with him," says Davis. Ward finished the year with 423 yards on the ground and 101 yards on 19 receptions, a stunning start for a high school quarterback.
But if 1994 was odd, 1995 was ridiculous. Ward injured his right shoulder in spring practice, opening the door for Robert Edwards to move from cornerback to tailback. Ward sensed that Edwards could become a star (he did, scoring five touchdowns in his first start), and also sensed that his body, even though bulked up from 160 to 185 pounds, would break down under the pounding a tailback takes. He asked to move to wide receiver, and the coaches complied; they wanted him on the field. Ward caught five passes for 103 yards in the season opener against South Carolina. In the next game Edwards broke his foot and Goff moved Ward back to running back.
Two weeks later his situation got truly bizarre. After quarterback Mike Bobo suffered a season-ending knee injury in a loss to Mississippi, Goff told Ward, "Son, we're moving you back to quarterback this week." Ward was first thrilled, then terrified. Alabama, a team with a ferocious pass rush, was next up, and he hadn't taken a snap since preseason drills a year earlier—and very few then. "I didn't know anything," he recalls. He spent a week watching tape, skipping all his classes, and when game time came, he was still grossly unprepared. When the first play was signaled from the sideline, Ward had no idea what it was. His first pass was intercepted, and after a few series', Goff pulled him. He was booed lustily by the crowd of more than 85,000.
Ward has never forgiven Goff for putting him in that situation. "I felt like he was trying to save his butt from getting fired," says Ward. "He didn't care about me." Goff kept Ward on the bench the next week in a win over Clemson, the low point of Ward's career. But when senior backup quarterback Brian Smith was injured in the eighth game of the season, Goff went to the spread shotgun and Ward passed for 1,159 yards in the last four games. Georgia lost three of those games, including a 34-27 Peach Bowl thriller against Virginia in which Ward threw for 413 yards.