The Long Way Home

Steelers receiver Hines Ward grew up a hurt, confused child, adrift between the cultures of his African-American father and Korean mother. Even a Super Bowl MVP award did not give him peace of mind. What he really needed was a little bit of Seoul
May 14, 2006

Hines Ward sits ina first-row aisle seat in first class on Korean Air Flight 36 from Atlanta toSeoul, a 7,000-mile journey that he hopes can close the distance between shameand pride. He tries to concentrate on what's playing on the video screen infront of him, the noisy Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni farce Fun with Dick &Jane, but he keeps thinking of that gap. His 574 catches in the NFL have notclosed it. Nor have 7,030 receiving yards, 53 touchdowns or four Pro Bowls. Noteven a Super Bowl ring and a Super Bowl MVP award. That all brought him closer,but not all the way there.

He looks over at his mother, Kim Young He, asleep in the seat beside him. Thisis for her, he has said. Long ago he pledged that if he ever made it to theNFL, he would return with his mother to South Korea, where he was born 30 yearsago. He had waited until now, though--two months after the Super Bowl--until hewas sure the people who had shunned her for marrying a black American GI, thepeople who had called her a whore and refused to acknowledge the child she wascarrying, would have to show her respect instead of scorn. He had waited untila nation that is notoriously cruel to children of mixed marriages would bow toher and treat her in a manner befitting the mother of a homecoming hero.

Pondering hisarrival in Seoul as the plane limns the curve of the earth--rivers andmountains and then an ocean all passing beneath him, he admits that he doesn'tknow what to expect. Off the football field Ward is a taciturn man, and it iseasy to mistake his stolidity for meekness. His quiet is actually a sign ofdetermination, a single-mindedness about the matter at hand, whether it'sstudying videotape of the Pittsburgh Steelers' next opponent, laying a crushingblock on a free safety or contemplating his ancestry. And when he speaks, hisvoice is soft and soothing, an even-toned Southern drawl that tends to lose t'sand e's as in, "I'm jus' real 'motional about it," which he says ofthis trip home. "I'm jus' curious about my people."

He uses the wordshame repeatedly when he talks about being half-Korean and growing up in anAfrican-American community with a mother who didn't look or act like the othermothers. About feeling like an outcast in any community--black, white orAsian-American. About being a boy whose eyes permanently marked him as the onething you never want to be as a kid: different.

As a child Hinesnever liked to talk about his birthplace. What was Korea, anyway? In Atlantaand Monroe, La., during the 1970s, it was known only as a place where there hadbeen a war, where a few brothers who had enlisted went to serve Uncle Sam.Korea wasn't yet an economic dynamo; no one had heard of Hyundai or Samsung orKia. It was just a far-off place with too many vowels. Besides, his upbringinghad been too confusing--born in Korea, brought by his parents to Atlanta whenhe was a year old; his father, Hines Sr., leaving his wife in East Point, Ga.,to take off for a tour of duty in Germany. When Hines Sr. returned to the U.S.,he and Kim divorced, and he convinced a family court that Kim couldn't raisetheir two-year-old son on her own because she didn't speak English. Hines Jr.was taken to Monroe, La., by his father, where he ended up living with MarthaWard, his paternal grandmother, until he was seven.

During thoseintervening years Kim would teach herself to speak passable English, work threejobs to pay the rent on a three-room apartment and buy a 12-year-old brownCamaro, and then she would get her boy back. Martha Ward let him go, latertelling Hines Sr., "I'm not going to be part of taking a child away fromhis mama." And little Hines, who had known his mother only as this Asianlady who brought him toys on holidays, went to live with her in Atlanta. Sevenyears old, a black child in the South, he would duck down in his seat when hismom drove him to school so the other kids wouldn't see him, "because Ididn't want them to know she was my mom." When he looked back at the car,he saw that she was crying.

Later came a shameabout feeling that shame, setting in motion a cycle of self-loathing and doubt."I was lost. I didn't really know who I was," says Ward of hischildhood. "I didn't have guidance. I was so angry with my father for notbeing there when I needed him the most. And I was so ashamed of my mother--andfor not understanding my culture."

Now Ward glancesat his mother, sitting beside him. He turns off the in-flight movie and sits uphigher in his seat. This flight began 10 hours ago. This journey began a long,long time before that.

His motherprepared in-flight meals for Eastern Airlines, an eight-hour shift of slappingcooked-to-death roast beef into rectangular plastic serving trays. She wouldfinish at 2 a.m. and be home by 3 to find Hines Jr. asleep in the living roomof their apartment in Forest Park, a suburb of Atlanta. All the lights in thetiny apartment would still be on, the white fluorescence reflecting off thetile floor, the china cabinet, the silver Korean ornaments hanging on thewalls. Hines hated those Korean decorations, just as he resented having to takeoff his shoes in the house. At his friends' houses, his American friends'houses, the kids wore shoes indoors and had pictures of cowboys and farmhouseson the walls. Other kids would tease him, pull the corners of their eyes back,call him Blackie Chan or Bruce Leroy, even taunt him during pickup basketballgames. "Being teased by his peers because his mother is Asian--coming upwasn't easy for him," says Corey Allen, a longtime friend.

"He used totalk about [being biracial]," says his wife, Simone, who has known Hinessince they were in 10th grade. "My mother is white, and my father is black.I went to an all-black high school, and we had a lot of conversations aboutthat stuff."

After returningfrom a shift at the airport, Kim would lay a blanket over her boy, turn off thelights and put on a pot of green tea, which she would sip at a folding table inthe kitchen before heading back out at 4 a.m. to start her second job, as acashier at a Supervalu convenience store across the street. It was up to Hinesto rouse himself at 6:30 and get to school. He never missed a day, and hegraduated from Forest Park High with perfect attendance.

Still, Kim worriedabout her boy. She knew that academics were the route to a better life. Shestressed the importance of mathematics, the sciences and, of course, Englishbut was disappointed that she couldn't help Hines when he struggled with hishomework. Whenever he showed her his classwork, Kim could offer onlyencouragement to work hard, to be a good boy. "It was frustrating,"Ward recalls. "It was kind of me on my own as far as my mom not being ableto help me as a child. I remember calling my mom stupid." It was up toHines to call the phone company or the gas company when they threatened to shutoff the service, not because his mother didn't have the money--Kim was, afterall, working as many as three jobs--but because she couldn't read thebills.

Kim never took apenny in government aid, welfare or food stamps, and she says she neverreceived a dollar in child support from Ward Sr. (Ward Sr. didn't return SI'sphone calls; Ward Jr. says he talks to his father, a correctional officer atGreen Oaks Juvenile Detention Center in Monroe, about once every two years.)"I've got pride," says Kim. "Really strong, more than anybody. Idon't want to take any government money. Even though I live hard, I got pride.That's why I have to work hard. That's a mama's job"--she smiles--"towork hard for your baby."

She worked hardenough to buy a three-bedroom house nearby, when Hines was a teenager. (Thinkabout that: a single mother saving for a $35,000 down payment from threelow-wage jobs.) Hines decorated his new room with posters of Michael Jordan, BoJackson and Jerry Rice. As far as anything Korean on his walls, "it wasn'teven a factor," Ward says, laughing.

Hines became bestfriends with a classmate, Donnie Evers, whose stepfather, Tom Reyneke, paidHines's registration fee so he could play on Donnie's Little League team. Itwas immediately apparent that the stocky centerfielder with the rocket arm wasa terrific athlete. When football season started, Reyneke signed him up forthat as well, and Hines quickly established himself as the best player on theteam. Likewise at Babb Middle School, Hines was voted best athlete in theeighth grade and then played varsity football as a freshman at Forest ParkHigh. He describes his various playing fields as safe havens. "If you werethe best player, people were going to love you regardless. People didn't lookat race," he explains. "I loved getting voted best athlete in schoolbecause as the best athlete there was less teasing."

Kim hardly noticedher son's success as an athlete. When she lived in Korea the country was notthe sporting power it would become. Sports were a distraction, she felt,nothing more than child's play. When middle-aged white men began turning up inthe living room of that new home, Hines was ashamed of his mother again,embarrassed at having to explain to her in front of Nebraska's Tom Osborne andFlorida State's Bobby Bowden and Georgia's Ray Goff that this was aboutfootball, not baseball--he would be selected in the 73rd round by the FloridaMarlins in the 1994 draft--and that these men wanted him to attend theircolleges.

"College?"Kim said. "We can't afford college."

No, this would befree, Hines told his mother. A scholarship.

"Free?"she asked him incredulously. "College for free?"

He nodded."O.K., go," she laughed. "Play. Go play all you want."

As you see himstanding there, in his FUBU jacket, Sean Jean jeans, Nikes, diamond-encrustedBreitling on his wrist, he looks the embodiment of the superstar athlete. Thereis the 10,000-square-foot, six-bedroom house in Smyrna, Ga., the five-bedroomtown house in Pittsburgh, the Bentley, the Ferrari and, even more important,the beautiful wife, Simone, and their two-year-old son, Jaden. This is theAmerican success story writ XL, what you would expect of a Super Bowl hero andAll-Pro wide receiver. And as much as Ward takes pride in thoseachievements--and enjoys the fruits of the $27.5-million contract extension hesigned last fall after holding out--he dwells on how he has been disrespected,has never been handed anything, has always had to work twice as hard as thenext player. "I get no love," he says.

He is tireless inrecounting what he perceives as his mistreatment at the hands of coaches, fansand media. He says he should have been a full-time, four-year starter atGeorgia, not merely a star wide receiver as a junior and senior; should havebeen a first-round NFL pick, not a third rounder; should have had more playingtime on offense his rookie year in Pittsburgh, instead of being aspecial-teamer; should have had more magazine covers, more endorsements, abigger salary. That's a 1,000-gigabyte chip on his shoulder.

That shame--andsorrow--from feeling different as a child contributes, he believes, to alingering sense that no matter how well his life is going, he is still anobject of scorn. His experience as an outsider has made him wary. "There isa dark side to [American] culture," he says. "I saw that, felt that,firsthand."

When Ward startedout at Georgia, he got practice time at quarterback, wide receiver and runningback but never enough reps at any position to feel comfortable. "He wasgetting angry, about how he was being misused, about how he wasn't getting ingames because he was a backup at all those positions," says fellow Bulldogswide receiver Corey Allen (his childhood friend). "He was probably the bestathlete on the team, and [the coaches] were so worried he would gethurt--because he was backing up every position--that they wouldn't playhim." Ward started to sulk about his situation and considered transferring.Desperate, he asked his mom for advice.

She looked at himand shook her head. "Nothing is ever going to be given to you," shetold him. "Nothing was ever given to me. You have to work."

Ward recalls thatconversation as the first of many inspirational talks with Kim, for whom hefinally 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 inyourself, you can't be mad all the time. You have to take that energy and dosomething with it.'"

He did. After Goffwas fired in 1995, Ward recommitted himself and thrived as a receiver and teamleader for the next two seasons under new coach Jim Donnan. He caught 52 passesin his junior year and then 55 as a senior. The 6-foot, 195-pound Ward drew theattention of NFL scouts, and because of his 4.5 speed, there was speculationthat he might go late in the first round of the '98 draft, certainly in thesecond. Instead, he was on the board until the Steelers took him with the 92ndpick, the 14th wide receiver selected. So, already, before he played a down inthe NFL, before he even arrived in Pittsburgh, for his first minicamp, he felthe wasn't wanted.

He didn't starthis rookie year but excelled as a special-teamer. "I didn't look like atypical wide receiver so they doubted me," Ward says. "Every step ofthe way." He caught only 15 passes for the 7--9 Steelers, but that wasenough for him to believe that he was positioned to be the Steelers' receiverof the future. Still, Pittsburgh felt it needed more talent at wideout; itchose Louisiana Tech receiver Troy Edwards in the first round of the 1999draft. In his second season Ward was a starter and tied for the team lead inreceptions. Instead of rejoicing at the emergence of their young receiver, theSteelers, citing the need for a "dominant receiver," selected MichiganState's Plaxico Burress in the first round of the 2000 draft. Upon reporting tocamp that year, Ward was second on the depth chart at flanker, behindEdwards.

He went throughhis usual cycle of anger, then despondency and finally turned again to hismother. "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. "Youdon't get that from too many wide receivers," says Steelers quarterback BenRoethlisberger. "And Hines is not just blocking--he's knocking people'sheads off, and he's making the defender look around, and that opens up the rungame."

Ward took aterrible 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 2000season he had retaken the starting job, catching 48 passes while alternatingwith Edwards. It was also the second year--in what would become a run of sevenstraight, and counting--that he led Pittsburgh in catches; the longest streakfor active players. And Ward's reward? "The next year," he says,"I'm playing every other series with Troy, again."

In 2001 Ward hadthe most prolific receiving season in Steelers history to that point, 94catches, 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 thatmuch when it comes to contract negotiations," he says, shrugging. "Alleverybody was saying was, 'Without Plax, he's nothing.'" He broke his ownteam marks in 2002, catching 112 passes for 1,329 yards, and then had 95 for1,163 the following year and 80 for 1,004 in '04. It's noteworthy that he wasputting up those numbers despite taking throws from four quarterbacks; inorder, Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak, Tommy Maddox and Roethlisberger. Lastyear Ward made his 538th reception to pass John Stallworth as Pittsburgh'salltime leading receiver.

Winning the SuperBowl and the game's MVP award should have been the crowning achievements of hiscareer, successes that would allow him to forgive and forget any perceivedslights by coaches or the organization. And while it would seem that thehard-nosed Ward would be the ideal Bill Cowher guy--tough, physical,intense--the wideout says he's never had a warm relationship with him. "Idon't have anything to say to him," he says. "After what he did to me,after how he treated me, no. The numbers I put up? The seasons I had, for themto keep on bringing in guys...?"

Cowher denieshaving anything but respect for Ward. "Our decision to draft other widereceivers was not a reflection on Hines Ward," he says. "We had lost acouple of our top veterans, and we were just trying to strengthen thatposition."

It is a rite ofpassage for Asian-Americans to visit their ancestral homes. These pilgrimagescan be cathartic or, in some cases, leave the returnees confused because theyare unable to make a spiritual connection with a place that has loomed so largein their minds for so long. They can come back to the U.S. with thedisconcerting sense of not fitting in with either culture.

For Ward, thisjourney is even more complex. He did not go to Korea merely out of curiosity ora sense of family obligation but to rid himself of all that hurt and anger--andshame. And he arrives at the peak of his celebrity, as that nation's greatestsporting figure, in the spotlight from the second he steps off the plane. Hemeets with South Korean president Rho Moo Hyun, has honorary Korean citizenshipbestowed upon him by the mayor of Seoul and travels in a motorcade that rivalsthat of a visiting head of state. His Q rating here is off the charts, and heknows he has a chance to have a great influence on this society. For just asWard is struggling to come to terms with his Korean heritage, so has Koreanever been willing to accept children of mixed race as anything like equalmembers of society. Mixed-race children have been systematically discriminatedagainst in Korea since the Korean War, when American GIs began fatheringchildren with Korean women. Those children were considered reminders of thatdark time, which is part of the reason why mixed-race Koreans were not allowedto serve in the Korean military from the 1960s until this year. The HermitKingdom, as Korea is known, has never been particularly welcoming tooutsiders--the country remains 99.5% ethnically homogenous--perhaps because ofits brutal treatment at the hands of Chinese, Mongol and Japanese conquerorsover the centuries. "A lot of it goes back to that history," says JanetMintzer, president and CEO of Pearl S. Buck International, an organizationwhich works on behalf of mixed-race children in Korea. "In terms of beinginvaded, it all resulted in this promotion of being pure-blooded." Thatlingering resentment has meant that Amerasian children have been treated assecond-class citizens; as a result, they have dropout rates of 27% before highschool and a 45% unemployment rate as adults. Mixed-race kids regularlycomplain that classmates, and even some teachers, bully and harass them.

"Korean peopletreat these kids terrible," says Kim. "That's why, even when Hines'sdaddy left me, I couldn't come back to Korea. I knew it would be easier for me,but for Hines it would be terrible."

In the wake ofWard's visit to their country, South Korean lawmakers are likely to passlegislation to protect the rights of mixed-race Koreans, after having justrepealed the laws that had prevented mixed-race men from serving in themilitary. "I really want to raise some awareness about this issue,"says Ward, who plans to return in the next few weeks and set up a foundationfor mixed-race kids. "I'm not here to change laws. But I want to shed lighton [the treatment of] biracial kids, or maybe change a person's mind who isborderline, make people look differently at a mixed-race kid because of whatthey've seen me accomplish."

He walks in a slowgait, hand in hand with his mother as they tour Changgyeonggung Palace inSeoul. Kim wears rubber-soled brown loafers, faded jeans and a white sweater.Her hair is cut short and piled up like the graying pompadour of an agingrocker, a curling lock out of place over her gold wire-frame glasses. Herstride is ambling, her back and rear moving in a circular motion. She is tiny.Three of her could fit in her son.

Wherever they go,they are surrounded by bands of yellow security tape held by eight securityguards. Inside the little patch of earth demarcated by the tape are Ward, hismother, his two security managers and several Korean lawyers hired by Ward'smanagement team to coordinate the visit. Outside the tape are hundreds ofKorean schoolchildren, sightseers, photographers and reporters. Ward and hismother are picking their way over the courtyard stones, between red-lacqueredwalls and beneath ornately painted tile roofs, and listening while a guideexplains how palaces were designed: "There are three gates for a king, andfive for an emperor, sometimes even seven."

"And how manydoes Hines get?" someone shouts.

"Nine,"answers one of the lawyers.

Everywhere, Wardis peppered with the same questions by Korean reporters. They ask him everyhalf hour, it seems, what he is feeling, what he thinks of South Korea, whetherhe has a message for young Koreans. They ask him what he thinks of the palace,does he like the garden, did he know Korean people slept on the floor? What'shis favorite part of the country, does he like Korean food, what does he thinkof Korean people? And they keep shouting, holding their digital voice recordersaloft and pointing their cameras at him. He stands there in his jeans andsweatshirt, nods and smiles, saying, "It's exciting for me to come and seethis great heritage, all this history."

Hines! Hines!Hines!

At every stop overthis 10-day trip--at each palace, museum and hospital, at the Blue House ofPresident Rho, at City Hall, at the Namsan Tower, and during a guest spot on apopular TV talk show, Ward holds his mother's hand and takes those questionsand utters platitudes about how he's just happy to be learning about Korea."I didn't know all this before I got here," he says. "It'swonderful to see what this country is about and what Korea's been doing."And when he's asked to sign a visitor's card, at a palace or hospital or cityhall, he writes, "THANKS FOR HELPING ME LEARN ABOUT KOREAN TRADITION. GOSTEELERS."

While riding inone of the three Kia Opiruses provided by the car company for Ward's travelingparty--later, the vehicle he rode in would be auctioned off--Ward and hismother recline in the plush seats as the motorcade swerves through Seoul'srush-hour traffic. He expresses nothing but gratitude for how he has beentreated on this trip. "This completes me," he says. "I never reallygot into my Korean heritage, as far as what being Korean means. It seems likeI've been living with it the whole time, and I've never really gotten in touchwith it.... There are some things my mom has hidden from me, like I never metmy grandmother [because] my mom was disowned by her family. There was so muchanimosity toward her because she had an African-American child. It's like ittook me winning the Super Bowl MVP to be accepted."

As for theKoreans' response to his visit, what he was most apprehensive about on theflight over: "It has been great," Ward says. "That's what thiswhole thing was about--repaying my mom. This is the way that I can show herthat I appreciate everything that she's done, show her how proud I am of her.We're meeting the president, we're meeting the mayor of Seoul, we're on all thetalk shows. What better way to show my mom the appreciation?"

Kim listens for awhile before interrupting. "They treat Hines well because of the MVP, butthey don't treat other mixed-race children better," she says. "Whoevermarries an American, they are still going to be looked down [upon]. They lookdown on me. The kids can't even go to school. They spit on mixed-racekids...."

Now Wardinterrupts. "My mom is suspicious of all this," he says. "She is arealist. Talk is cheap."

The next day Wardis stretching out on an intricately patterned olive-colored sofa in his LotteHotel suite. There are floral arrangements on coffee tables that havecloven-hoof legs. There is a huge mirror over the marble fireplace, and throughthe double, gold-trimmed doors is the dining room of this six-room suite with atable set for a dozen. He says he is going to hire a Korean language tutor whenhe returns to the States. He actually had signed up for Korean while he was atGeorgia but dropped it after the first class when he realized how intensive anddemanding the course would be--he was worried that it would knock down his GPA."This time," he says, "I'm going to learn."

When Kim walksinto the room to sit beside him, Ward looks at her and says yet again that hecame to Korea to repay her, to show how proud he is of her. "I'm notashamed any--"

"I know."She cuts him off. "Of course, a mama always knows."

SI.COM
For more NFL news, including minicamp reports, Peter King's Monday MorningQuarterback and Dr. Z's mailbag, go to SI.com/nfl.

Ward uses the word shame repeatedly when he talks aboutbeing half-Korean and growing up in an African-American community.

Mixed-race children have been discriminated againstsince the war, when GIs began fathering children with Korean women.

"I didn't look like a typical wide receiver so theydoubted me," Ward says of the Steelers. "Every step of theway."

"This completes me," Ward says. "I neverreally got into my Korean heritage, as far as what being Korean means."

PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY WARDINGOFF - Korea's new hero received rock-star treatment as he toured, including aneight-man security detail and lots of yellow tape. PHOTOCHA DAE-YUN/YONHAP/AP POUNDFOR POUND - In a demonstration of how to make rice cakes, the hard-hittingWard got in a few good shots with a wooden mallet. PHOTOOTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES ALWAYS ACATCH - Ward believes Cowher unfairly questioned his abilities foryears. PHOTOCHA DAE-YUN/YONHAP/AP FEELINGTHE LOVE - Ward got into the spirit--and the garb--at a folk village outsideSeoul. PHOTOANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES MULTI-CULTI - Ward looked good in the Super Bowl (opposite) and in traditionalKorean hanbok with his mother two months later. PHOTOPhotograph by Cha Dae-yun/Yonhap/AP[See caption above]

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)