Hines Ward talks life after football, path to success

Former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward left a 14-year NFL career having amassed four Pro Bowl selections and three Super Bowl appearances, among other accolades.
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SI.com is taking a look at the lives of some of sports' most notable former players across the NBA, NFL and MLB. From weighing in on life in retirement to providing their analysis on today's crop of stars, these athletes share their thoughts.

The football afterlife. That's something players don't think about when they first head into the league. For most of us, football has been our lives -- our entire lives. We have been playing since we were old enough to "carry the rock," whether it's backyard football or Pop Warner. We eat, breathe and live football. Life beyond football doesn't really exist to many of us because there is no life after football. For me, football was not only a way of life, but also a way out of what could have been a very bad life. A life filled with racial discrimination, ridicule, and shame because of my heritage (being Korean and African-American). Instead, football was my outlet. It was my safe place where I was not only accepted, but also where I was respected and praised for my ability by my peers and my opponents. It gave me an identity to others that allowed them to accept me for who I was. Football was a blessing for me.

Having played in the NFL for 14 years for what I believe is the greatest football organization in the world, the Pittsburgh Steelers, I was fortunate to have had a productive and relatively injury-free career. To dedicate your life to playing a game you loved as a child and earning some of the league's top honors while doing so is truly a dream come true. And having been able to enjoy some of the "once in a lifetime" experiences along the way was just icing on the cake. I tell everyone I meet that my life both on and off the field is a modern day version of "Forest Gump." The odds were definitely stacked against me (another story for another time), but I was able to overcome all adversity, one game at a time. Now, as I look back on my accomplishments: four Pro Bowls, three Super Bowls, Super Bowl MVP, and the Steelers' all-time leading receiver, I have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure it's real.

And my transition from football to retirement from the game has been just as amazing for me. I knew going into my 11th or 12th year that I realistically only had about two or three more good playing years left for reasons both within and beyond my control. It was then that I began to take advantage of the many opportunities that came my way. It is essential as you reach that age when your body doesn't feel the same, when your teammates keep getting younger and younger, when retirement becomes a thought in your mind for the first time that you start exploring that next step.

For me, the hardest part of my transition into retirement was the adjustment I had to make not going to the practice facility everyday. Having played football my whole life, there was never a day that I didn't do this. But every time I thought about that, I also thought about how much better my Mondays were, not being in the training room or getting medical treatment for the bruising and injuries my body had sustained the day before. I definitely did not miss that.

Retirement from the game has been great! My retirement planning really began when I did Dancing with the Stars. My marketing agent and I thought that would be the best thing for me to do as a first step toward retirement. I wanted to challenge myself and overcome my own fears as well, and I was fortunate enough to have won my season on the show (thanks to my fans and Steeler Nation for voting). Since then, I took advantage of every other opportunity that came my way and was blessed to have had roles in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, The Walking Dead and Rachel v. Guy: Celebrity Cookoff. I was even fortunate enough to interview stars on the red carpet at the Oscars. Since my retirement from the game, I have kept myself very busy, which is another key to a successful transition into retirement. To satisfy my thirst for competition, I spent the last several months preparing for and competing in the 2013 World Ironman Championships in Kona, Hawaii. I went from a fast twitch sport in football to becoming an endurance athlete in the Ironman, all in a matter of months. It's crazy.

The biggest key to my transition into retirement was landing my job with NBC Sports: Football Night in America. I am truly blessed to be working with the Mt. Rushmore of the broadcasting world in Al Michaels, Chris Collinsworth, Dan Patrick, and of course, the Godfather, himself, Bob Costas, to name a few (of course, I don't want to leave out Coach Dungy and Rodney Harrison). Learning from these legends as a "rookie" broadcaster has been a rewarding experience for me and keeps me close to the game I gave my heart and soul to for the past 14 years. Working with NBC Sports has given me another purpose, another drive: to be the best sportscaster I can be. I am learning that there is a lot more to being a broadcaster than just looking good on television. And it's the fear of failure that motivates me to work harder.

So, if I could give any advice to any player thinking about retirement, I would say that the three essential ingredients to a successful transition would be: timing, focus, and planning. Timing for me was my ability to recognize the right time to begin the transition process. Focus led me to take advantage of the opportunities that were right for me and the ones that would lead me to where I wanted to go in the next phase of my life and say "no" to the meaningless ones. And planning was essential to the success of my timing and focus.

Life after football does exist. And it's even bigger and better than I thought it would be. I am thankful for my life in the NFL and especially as a Pittsburgh Steeler. I am excited about my future in my retirement and where I am headed. And I will always be a fan of the game. It's in my blood. It will always be a part of who I am.

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