Hines Anxiety Defenders dread the sight of Steeler Hines Ward, the AFC's leading--and hardest-hitting--receiver

December 15, 2003

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."

COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN FERREY/GETTY IMAGES (TOP) CATCH-ALL Ward has an AFC-best 82 receptions this year and 288 since 2001, second most in the NFL over that span. COLOR PHOTO: DANNY MOLOSHOK/GETTY IMAGES Boldin COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH (TOP) HANDFUL Ward went toe-to-toe with the Titans' Andre Dyson in September and turned him every which way but loose. COLOR PHOTO: ALBERT DICKSON/SPORTING NEWS/ICON SMI (INSET) [See caption above]

Doing Their Share

Hines Ward isn't the only player who has performed at a high
level on a poor team. Here are four others with big numbers and
few wins to show for it (stats through Dec. 1):

WR Anquan Boldin, Cardinals: The rookie has 70 receptions
and ranks fourth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,032).

RB LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers: He is averaging 5.5 yards
per carry and is on pace for 1,563 rushing yards.

DE Shaun Ellis, Jets: His career-high 11 1/2 sacks have helped
offset the sidelining of Pro Bowl DE John Abraham by a groin
injury.

CB Dre' Bly, Lions: His six interceptions and 37 tackles have
bolstered a weak, injury-riddled secondary.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)