THE HIT CAUGHT
Hines Ward off-guard, momentarily jolting the Pittsburgh Steelers' inexorable
wideout. Craning his neck to see who was wrapping him up from behind, Ward
eyeballed a laughing man with long hair, dark sunglasses and a weathered cowboy
hat. The receiver smiled broadly at one of the Steelers' most famous fans,
singer Hank Williams Jr., who had joined hundreds of revelers at the Pontiac
Marriott in suburban Detroit in the early hours of Monday morning.
"Remember when I saw you in training camp and you were calling me Mr.
Hank?" asked Williams, a frequent visitor to the team's headquarters.
"Well, you're Mr. Hines today. In fact, you're the entertainer of the
year." � Several hours earlier Ward had regaled a Pittsburgh-heavy crowd of
68,206 at Ford Field, and a worldwide television audience, with his
distinctive, proletarian brand of football, blocking, catching passes and
ramrodding his way to MVP honors in the Steelers' 21-10 victory over the
Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Later on Monday he would fly to Disney World
with teammate Jerome Bettis, who announced his retirement after the game, then
zoom back to Pittsburgh for a victory parade through the city's streets on
Tuesday. But Ward is one player who is sure to stay grounded in the face of his
A former college
quarterback and tailback at Georgia who fought his way to All-Pro status
despite having lost his left anterior cruciate ligament in childhood, Ward is
the NFL's anti-TO: a selfless star revered by his coaches and fellow Steelers.
"Hines's character symbolizes what kind of team this is: close-knit and
physical," outside linebacker Clark Haggans said in Pittsburgh's jubilant
locker room after the franchise had won its NFL-record-tying fifth Super Bowl
title. "He's the best receiver in football and one of the toughest people
I've ever been around."
Are you ready for
some football, Steelers style? The Seahawks weren't, spoiling the first Super
Bowl appearance in franchise history by making more mistakes and fewer big
plays than a Pittsburgh team that appeared more vulnerable than a Detroit
autoworker. Despite a shaky performance from second-year quarterback Ben
Roethlisberger and the virtual disappearance of their two marquee defenders,
wild-haired strong safety Troy Polamalu and outspoken outside linebacker Joey
Porter, the Steelers plodded to victory in a game that will be remembered less
for the caliber of play than for what its outcome represented: one for the
thumb, finally, for 73-year-old Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, whose club won
four Super Bowls in the 1970s; a crowning career achievement for coach Bill
Cowher, in his 14th season with the Steelers; and a confirmation that faith in
one another and accountability can carry a team past seemingly insurmountable
count us out," Porter said after Pittsburgh had limited the Seattle
offense, top-ranked in the NFL, to its lowest point total of the season.
"People definitely wrote us off in December, and when you tell somebody
they can't do something, proving it wrong is the sweetest joy of all."
Cowher pushed the
right buttons on a surprisingly sloppy Super Sunday, but his most important
move might have come two months earlier, when he walked into a meeting room at
the Steelers' training facility the morning after a 38-31 home loss to the
Cincinnati Bengals. That setback had essentially ceded the AFC North title to
the Bengals and put Pittsburgh, at 7-5, on the brink of playoff elimination.
The players shuddered. Would Cowher launch a spit-filled tirade? Would his head
To the Steelers'
relief, the man with football's most celebrated chin turned junior high history
teacher instead. Passing out grade sheets, Cowher gave his players an
assignment: Watch film of the Cincinnati game and for every play assign
yourself a grade (plus or minus) in each of three categories: technique, effort
and how well you followed your assignment. "It was revealing," Cowher
recalled last Thursday morning as he sipped coffee in the cafeteria area of the
team's hotel in Pontiac. "Some guys, like Troy, were overly critical of
themselves; others were a little too lenient. But the most important point I
wanted to make was that if each guy did just a little bit more and was
accountable for his actions, we could turn this thing around-together."
Said Bettis, the 33-year-old running back, "It drove home the message:
Before you start to point fingers, you've got to look at yourself
self-examination and recommitment spurred an eight-game winning streak that
vaulted them from playoff long shots to history-making champions: the first No.
6 seed to win a Super Bowl and only the second team to win its first three
playoff games on the road, beginning with a 31-17 wild-card triumph over the
Bengals. In its stunning divisional-round upset of the top-seeded Indianapolis
Colts and its AFC Championship Game drubbing of the second-seeded Denver
Broncos, Pittsburgh played at a scarily high level, with big names like
Roethlisberger, Polamalu and Porter in starring roles.
Yet Super Sunday
belonged to the unheralded Steelers, perhaps fittingly, as foreshadowed by
Cowher's pregame address to the team. "It's not going to take a super
effort from any one individual," he said to his players. "You play as a
team, and you're going to walk away as champions." They did, thanks to such
lesser lights as second-year halfback Willie Parker, whose 75-yard burst on the
second snap of the second half, helped by Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca's
perfect block on linebacker Leroy Hill, gave Pittsburgh a 14-3 lead. The
defensive standouts included Haggans, nosetackle Casey Hampton and cornerback
Deshea Townsend, each of whom sacked Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and
cornerback Ike Taylor, who atoned for several early lapses in coverage by
snagging an interception at the Steelers' five-yard line with 10:46 remaining
and his team clinging to a 14-10 advantage.
Four plays after
that, the Steelers' biggest pass since Terry Bradshaw hit John Stallworth in
Super Bowl XIV was thrown not by Roethlisberger (9 of 21, 123 yards, two
interceptions) but by wideout Antwaan Randle El, a former standout quarterback
at Indiana whose 43-yard strike to Ward provided the game's signature moment.
Credit another perfectly timed call to red-hot offensive coordinator Ken
Whisenhunt, who two plays earlier had set up the trick pass by calling a speed
screen to Randle El for a seven-yard gain. Then, on first-and-10 from the
Seattle 43, Whisenhunt sent in Zero Strong Z Short Fake Toss 39 X Reverse Pass,
which was run out of the same formation as the speed screen. "I was so
excited," Randle El said later, "I had to make sure I didn't give it
Roethlisberger pitched the ball to Parker on the left side, Randle El swung
around from his position wide to the left to take a handoff from Parker, then
continued rolling to his right as Ward flashed open between three confused
defenders. Throw it to me now! Ward thought to himself. Please, please get it
to me. Without breaking stride, Randle El released what he would later call the
"prettiest pass" of his life, a tight spiral that Ward caught on the
run just inside the Seattle five-yard line, beyond the pursuit of cornerback
Marcus Trufant, and cruised in for the game's final points with 8:56