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He is tireless in recounting what he perceives as his mistreatment at the hands of coaches, fans and media. He says he should have been a full-time, four-year starter at Georgia, not merely a star wide receiver as a junior and senior; should have been a first-round NFL pick, not a third rounder; should have had more playing time on offense his rookie year in Pittsburgh, instead of being a special-teamer; should have had more magazine covers, more endorsements, a bigger salary. That's a 1,000-gigabyte chip on his shoulder.
That shame--and sorrow--from feeling different as a child contributes, he believes, to a lingering sense that no matter how well his life is going, he is still an object of scorn. His experience as an outsider has made him wary. "There is a dark side to [American] culture," he says. "I saw that, felt that, firsthand."
When Ward started out at Georgia, he got practice time at quarterback, wide receiver and running back but never enough reps at any position to feel comfortable. "He was getting angry, about how he was being misused, about how he wasn't getting in games because he was a backup at all those positions," says fellow Bulldogs wide receiver Corey Allen (his childhood friend). "He was probably the best athlete on the team, and [the coaches] were so worried he would get hurt--because he was backing up every position--that they wouldn't play him." Ward started to sulk about his situation and considered transferring. Desperate, he asked his mom for advice.
She looked at him and shook her head. "Nothing is ever going to be given to you," she told him. "Nothing was ever given to me. You have to work."
Ward recalls that conversation as the first of many inspirational talks with Kim, for whom he finally started to develop respect while in high school. "I would be like, 'F--- these coaches!' and my mom would tell me, 'You have to believe in yourself, you can't be mad all the time. You have to take that energy and do something with it.'"
He did. After Goff was fired in 1995, Ward recommitted himself and thrived as a receiver and team leader for the next two seasons under new coach Jim Donnan. He caught 52 passes in his junior year and then 55 as a senior. The 6-foot, 195-pound Ward drew the attention of NFL scouts, and because of his 4.5 speed, there was speculation that he might go late in the first round of the '98 draft, certainly in the second. Instead, he was on the board until the Steelers took him with the 92nd pick, the 14th wide receiver selected. So, already, before he played a down in the NFL, before he even arrived in Pittsburgh, for his first minicamp, he felt he wasn't wanted.
He didn't start his rookie year but excelled as a special-teamer. "I didn't look like a typical wide receiver so they doubted me," Ward says. "Every step of the way." He caught only 15 passes for the 7--9 Steelers, but that was enough for him to believe that he was positioned to be the Steelers' receiver of the future. Still, Pittsburgh felt it needed more talent at wideout; it chose Louisiana Tech receiver Troy Edwards in the first round of the 1999 draft. In his second season Ward was a starter and tied for the team lead in receptions. Instead of rejoicing at the emergence of their young receiver, the Steelers, citing the need for a "dominant receiver," selected Michigan State's Plaxico Burress in the first round of the 2000 draft. Upon reporting to camp that year, Ward was second on the depth chart at flanker, behind Edwards.
He went through his usual cycle of anger, then despondency and finally turned again to his mother. "I've got to make a name for myself," he told her. She replied, "If the other guys work hard, then you work even harder." And he did, by transforming himself into the most lethal blocking receiver in football, quickly earning a reputation as an end who never takes plays off. "You don't get that from too many wide receivers," says Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "And Hines is not just blocking--he's knocking people's heads off, and he's making the defender look around, and that opens up the run game."
Ward took a terrible beating playing this way, but it was nothing, he kept telling himself, compared with what his mother had gone through. By the second game of the 2000 season he had retaken the starting job, catching 48 passes while alternating with Edwards. It was also the second year--in what would become a run of seven straight, and counting--that he led Pittsburgh in catches; the longest streak for active players. And Ward's reward? "The next year," he says, "I'm playing every other series with Troy, again."
In 2001 Ward had the most prolific receiving season in Steelers history to that point, 94 catches, helping lead the team to a 13--3 record and making his first Pro Bowl. His response to being elected to go to Hawaii? "Pro Bowls don't mean that much when it comes to contract negotiations," he says, shrugging. "All everybody was saying was, 'Without Plax, he's nothing.'" He broke his own team marks in 2002, catching 112 passes for 1,329 yards, and then had 95 for 1,163 the following year and 80 for 1,004 in '04. It's noteworthy that he was putting up those numbers despite taking throws from four quarterbacks; in order, Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak, Tommy Maddox and Roethlisberger. Last year Ward made his 538th reception to pass John Stallworth as Pittsburgh's alltime leading receiver.