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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 Marriott in Pontiac, Mich., in the early hours of the Monday morning after Super Bowl XL. "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. Later on Monday he was scheduled to fly by private jet 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 burgeoning fame.
A former quarterback, tailback and finally wide receiver at Georgia who fought his way to All-Pro status without an anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, 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 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 early on 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 odds.
"Don't ever 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 their 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 explode?
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 on Thursday morning before the Super Bowl, 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 first."
The team's self-examination and recommitment spurred an eight-game winning streak that vaulted it from playoff long shot to history-making champion: the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl and the first team since the New England Patriots 20 years ago to win the 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 to seal 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 (Wiz) 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 away."