During a Saturday-morning film session with his team in early September, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher pointed at the big-screen video monitor and shouted, "Look at this play, look at this play!" Some players chuckled in amazement. There was wide receiver Hines Ward charging toward Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, intent on delivering a crushing block late in Pittsburgh's 34-15 victory the previous Sunday. What impressed Cowher and his audience wasn't the block—Ward missed Lewis on the running play—but Lewis's reaction to seeing Ward coming toward him. "You could see Ray flinch on the film," Ward recalls. "You could tell he was thinking, This guy is even willing to come after me. But it's well known that I play aggressively. When I'm not doing that, I'm not doing my job."
In that sense the six-foot, 200-pound Ward is a rarity. Most NFL receivers make their names with reliable hands, frightening speed or precise route running. Ward has bullied his way to the top. Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Eric Hicks says Ward "probably loves hitting people more than catching passes," and Hicks should know. Ward shook Hicks with a block two seasons ago.
Ward explains his mind-set by saying, "I'm never going to let up on anybody out there. Defensive backs are always trying to kill me, so I'm trying to get them first."
That same relentlessness is apparent in his all-around game. Through Sunday, Ward, a two-time Pro Bowl selectee, had caught 288 passes since 2001, ranking him second in the NFL only to the Colts' Marvin Harrison (331) over that span. He led the AFC with 82 receptions this season, during which he has performed well against a trio of playoff contenders: Baltimore (nine receptions, 91 yards, two touchdowns), Kansas City (nine for 146, no TDs) and the Cincinnati Bengals (13 for 149, one score). "It's been a frustrating year," says Hines, referring to Pittsburgh's 5-8 record. "But I won't have anybody saying I'm not getting it done."
Ward's success is based not only on his willingness to hit hard but also on his deceptive quickness and innate feel for a defender's tendencies. Steelers receivers coach Kenny Jackson says Ward "is changing the receiver position. If he just blocked and didn't catch passes, nobody would talk about him. He's unique because he can impact the game with or without the ball in his hands."
Jackson adds that most players get mentally worn down over the course of the season, but the ever enthusiastic Ward "is in heaven every time he hits the field." That's because Ward knows that life can be much harder than football. He learned about perseverance and sacrifice by watching his mother, Kim Young, who was born and raised in South Korea, where she married Ward's father, Hines Sr., who was with the 2nd Infantry Division in Seoul. Kim gave birth to Hines Jr. in March 1976, and roughly 14 months later the family moved to the U.S. The couple split up shortly afterward, and though Kim, who settled outside Atlanta, barely spoke English, she worked two and three jobs at a time. Ward credits his mother for his work ethic.
He never complained at the University of Georgia about being shifted back and forth between quarterback, running back and wide receiver. He also didn't gripe when he wasn't taken until the third round of the 1998 draft, after a handful of teams had suggested that he would be a second-rounder. He caught 15 passes as a Pittsburgh rookie and shared the team lead with Troy Edwards in 1999, with 61. Still, Ward lost his starting job the following season to rookie Plaxico Burress and fumed silently about it. "We were in transition and trying to find receivers who could help us in the run game," says Cowher. "We thought Troy and Plaxico would be good together, and we saw Hines as a third-down guy. He was still learning the position back then."
Ward's education didn't take long. After a one-game absence he was back in the starting lineup (his 48 catches led Pittsburgh in 2000), but his bitterness lingered. After grabbing a team-record 94 receptions in 2001, Ward told reporters that Burress "would've been on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED" if he had accomplished the same feat. Ward cringes about the comment now because he respects Burress. Ward also wants to become known for his leadership—he supported struggling quarterback Tommy Maddox during a speech to the team in October—and his commitment to improving himself.
At last year's Pro Bowl, Ward chatted with Oakland Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice, who advised him never to waste an off-season. Ward started running a month later and began honing his pass patterns a month after that, significantly earlier than he had in years past, when he would give himself two to three months of rest after the season. Ward says he often thinks about one of Rice's observations: that the best work is done when nobody's watching.
As Ward pulled up to a car wash near his suburban Pittsburgh town house recently, some teenage employees recognized him and began talking football with him. They told him of his nickname on the streets: the Beast. Smiling, Ward says, "I really like that. It means people really appreciate the way I play."