The Pittsburgh Steelers are considered one of the National Football League’s most storied and iconic franchises. In the 1970s, behind offensive Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Franco Harris, as well as their feared “Steel Curtain” defense, the Steelers won four Super Bowl titles.
But by the turn of the century, their luster had weakened. Other than an appearance in Super Bowl XXX, the Steelers hadn’t even come close to winning the sport’s ultimate prize.
Wide receiver Hines Ward was an integral factor in the Steelers resurrecting their championship tradition.
He not only became a star on the field but also a big name off it.
Coming to America
Unlike many NFL players, Ward wasn’t born in a wholesome small town in Middle America. In fact, he wasn’t even born in the States.
Hines Edward Ward Jr. was actually born in Seoul, South Korea on March 8, 1976. His mother, Kim Young He, is Korean, and his father, Hines Ward Sr., is African-American.
Ward Jr. did, however, spend most of his childhood in the States, as his parents moved to Georgia when he was one year old.
Shortly afterward, Ward Sr. left home to serve a tour of duty in Germany. When he returned home, he divorced Young He, and a court ruled that she wasn’t fit to raise Hines Jr. because she didn’t speak English.
Ward Sr. raised his son in Monroe, La. At age seven, the younger Hines returned to Atlanta to live with Young He.
Unfortunately, after that, he had very little contact with his father, who didn’t even pay one penny of child support.
Since he grew up in a biracial household with parents of two different nationalities, Ward felt confusion and even shame about his own identity. Those feelings were compounded by the ones that come from not having a father in the picture for most, if not all of one’s childhood.
“I was lost. I didn’t really know who I was,” says Ward of his childhood. “I didn’t have guidance. I was so angry with my father for not being there when I needed him the most. And I was so ashamed of my mother–and for not understanding my culture.”
Growing up Black in the South, he felt ashamed that his mother wasn’t Black or even an American. When she drove him to school, he would duck down to prevent other kids from seeing him because he didn’t want them to know that his mother was Korean.
It didn’t help, though, because word got out that Ward’s mother was from the Far East. He had to deal with other kids bullying him for his heritage.
According to Sports Illustrated writer Karl Taro Greenfield, who wrote a long piece on the wideout in 2006, “Other kids would tease him, pull the corners of their eyes back, call him Blackie Chan or Bruce Leroy, even taunt him during pickup basketball games.”
Perhaps all this adversity drove Ward to be something more than the son of an immigrant who takes full advantage of the rights, freedoms and opportunities that America has to offer.
Since Young He struggled to make ends meet, Ward needed his best friend’s stepfather to pay the registration fee to sign up for Little League baseball competition. Shortly afterward, he played in a youth football league, then moved up to playing at Babb Middle School, then the varsity team at Forest Park High, as a freshman to boot.
It led him to being voted best athlete at school as an eighth-grader. Once he discovered that he had gifts as an athlete, Ward found that he wasn’t getting picked on as much at school.
“If you were the best player, people were going to love you regardless. People didn’t look at race,” he explained. “I loved getting voted best athlete in school because as the best athlete there was less teasing.”
Forest Park head coach Mike Parris played Ward at quarterback, and the teen was named Clayton County Offensive Player of the Year twice. He also played baseball, and he had his fair share of college recruiters who were enamored with his skills in both sports.
Greatness at Georgia
Although he was thought to have promise as a baseball player (he was chosen by the Florida Marlins in the 73rd round of the 1994 Major League Baseball draft), Ward decided to stick to football by the time he went off to college.
He decided to play for the storied University of Georgia Bulldogs, however, early on it wasn’t clear that he was headed for stardom. He didn’t even know which position he would consistently play.
During practice, head coach Ray Goff would try Ward at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. He didn’t get a ton of snaps in actual games, but he still flashed his skills as a freshman, putting 425 rushing yards and 101 receiving yards in 11 contests.
In his sophomore season, he would get some playing time under center, registering 872 passing yards in 10 games. He threw for two touchdowns but also got intercepted three times.
Early on in his tenure as a Bulldog, Ward was frustrated that he wasn’t a featured player. He even contemplated transferring to a different school, but his mother encouraged him to continue to work hard and to believe in himself.
He persevered, and his hard work and belief eventually paid off. Jim Donnan took over for Goff when Ward was a junior, and the new Bulldog head coach got him to focus on being a wideout.
Ward has 900 receiving yards and four touchdowns as a junior, then put up 715 yards and six touchdowns in the air in his senior season, earning him All-SEC honors that year.
Hines Ward at Georgia in 1996. pic.twitter.com/brBnYX04Mw
— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) June 21, 2018
Overall, he finished second only to Herschel Walker in career all-purpose yards in school history.
One of my favorite UGA quotes:
“Bulldog fans are the best in CFB & you can feel the electricity every time home game. When people ask me what is the key to my success, I always point to my days as a Georgia Bulldog & the support I received from the University.”
– Hines Ward pic.twitter.com/wECtv4WJGO
— UGA Football Live (@UGAfootballLive) March 8, 2020
His exploits there, as well as his speed, made pro scouts think he would be a relatively high pick in the 1998 NFL Draft.
Heading to the Steel City
Ward’s stock as a draftee, however, fell when suitors found that he didn’t have an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee due to a childhood bicycling accident. Instead of being drafted in the first round, as some expected, he was still on the board towards the end of the third round, when the Pittsburgh Steelers finally selected him with the 92nd pick, the last pick of the third round.
In the mid-1990s, the Steelers were a good team, but for a franchise that was dominant 20 years earlier, their success was underwhelming. Although Ward had potential, it seemed that no one in the organization felt that he would take them to the next level.
Ward already had a chip on his shoulder due to his childhood environment, but upon arriving in Pittsburgh, that chip seemed to grow like a bamboo tree.
The Steelers had just lost star wideout Yancey Thigpen to the Tennessee Titans, yet head coach Bill Cowher wasn’t inclined to throw Ward into the mix and see what he had to offer.
In fact, the rookie started nary a game and even saw some time on special teams that year. Despite appearing in each game, he only managed 246 receiving yards and failed to score a touchdown.
The Steelers, who had made the playoffs in each of the last six seasons, only won seven games in ’98 and missed the postseason. Just three years after reaching the Super Bowl, the team appeared to be heading nowhere fast.
Not only were the Steelers mired in mediocrity, but they didn’t seem to have a ton of belief in Ward. They chose Troy Edwards in the 1999 draft and Plaxico Burress in the first round the following year, both of whom were wide receivers.
Ward started to show promise, starting almost every game in the next two seasons and posting over 600 receiving yards in each of those seasons. But it didn’t translate into wins, as Pittsburgh watched the NFL playoffs at home both years.
The fact that the team prioritized Edwards over him on the depth chart led Ward to feel anger, which he channeled into working on his craft.
In 2001 Ward had his first 1,000-yard season, and the Steelers finally started to look strong on the field. For the first time in several years, they had one of the strongest offenses in the league, even though star running back Jerome Bettis missed the last five regular season games with a knee injury.
Playing at brand-new Heinz Field, the Steelers won 13 games in 2001 and had high hopes for the postseason. They would face the New England Patriots and a young quarterback named Tom Brady for the conference title.
Although the Steelers lost, the team’s future looked bright. Ward had 64 receiving yards against the Pats, and he was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
However, Western PA’s dreams of a Super Bowl win would have to be deferred. Veteran quarterback Kordell Stewart had been solid at times over the past several years, but he simply didn’t have what it took to get the team over the hump, and for the next couple of years, there would be a revolving door at the position.
The team wasn’t too successful, losing in the divisional round in 2002, then missing the playoffs in ’03.
On the other hand, Ward was developing fast like a Polaroid picture. He posted over 100 yards in a single game four times in 2002, and he ended the year with 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns.
In ’03 he had 1,163 yards and 10 touchdowns in the air. Both years ended with him getting selected to appear in the Pro Bowl.
Going All the Way
The Steelers’ fortunes would turn dramatically in 2004. They took quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick in that year’s draft, and he would become their cornerstone for many years to come.
After becoming a starter for good in his third game, “Big Ben” played very well, and the Steelers went undefeated in his 13 games as a first-stringer that year. Overall, they finished 15-1 on the season, a mark that few teams in league history had ever achieved.
Not even the vintage teams of Bradshaw, Swann, Harris and company went through an entire regular season with just one loss.
One factor was that the team went back to basics: a physical running game and defense, the same bread-and-butter that worked so well in the ’70s. Still, Ward continued to do well and was a major factor in Pittsburgh’s success.
2004 was the fourth straight year he posted north of 1,000 receiving yards and got named to the Pro Bowl.
By now, Ward was making a name for himself as one of the game’s better receivers. He started to help his mates by not only catching passes but also becoming one of the best blockers at the wideout position.
“You don’t get that from too many wide receivers,” said 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.”
Just as it did three years ago, Pittsburgh was dreaming of winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy. It knocked off the New York Jets in the divisional round, as Ward had 105 yards and a touchdown.
Once again, Pittsburgh would face Brady and the Patriots for a spot in the Super Bowl, and despite a strong game from Ward, once again Pittsburgh fell short to New England.
The Steelers had high hopes for the 2005 season, but things would get tougher for them. Bettis, its biggest offensive weapon for nearly a decade, struggled with injuries, as did Duce Staley, the team’s other running back, as well as Roethlisberger.
Ward’s numbers dipped a shade under 1,000 yards, but he still had 11 touchdowns. In Week 3 against the pesky Patriots, he had 110 yards and two touchdowns.
With an 11-5 record, Pittsburgh was the sixth seed in the AFC, and it would be an uphill climb for it in the playoffs. After blowing out Cincinnati in the wild card round, they would have to deal with the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning in the divisional round.
But a missed field goal by Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt preserved a 21-18 win for the Steelers, who then easily beat the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
The Steelers had advanced to Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks. Pittsburgh was favored to win, as it featured one of the NFL’s top defenses, just as it did back in the day.
Ward was the deciding factor for the Steelers. He had 123 receiving yards on the day, and with his team clinging to a 14-10 lead, Ward scored a touchdown on a pass from fellow receiver Antwaan Randle El, which came off a reverse play.
— Blitzburgh (@Blitz_Burgh) November 5, 2019
As a result, Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl, 21-10. For the first time since January 1980, it had won the world championship, and Ward was named the game’s MVP.
Happy Birthday to Hines Ward, one of only seven wide receivers to be named Super Bowl MVP 🎁 🎂 pic.twitter.com/hSBvHXRWYe
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) March 8, 2019
The 2006 season was a dismal one for the Steelers, as they won just eight games. Longtime head coach Bill Cowher retired, to be replaced by Mike Tomlin, who was the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator at the time.
Pittsburgh didn’t fare much better in 2007, winning 10 games and losing in the wild card round despite finishing first in the AFC North.
But in 2008, they returned to form. Ward had his first 1,000-yard season since ’04, while Roethlisberger was establishing himself as one of the league’s most solid signal-callers.
Once again, the defense was the team’s calling card, as it finished first in points and yards allowed.
The Steelers easily got past San Diego and Baltimore in the playoffs to return to the Super Bowl. There, they faced the Arizona Cardinals, which featured a resurgent Kurt Warner (the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV) and All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald.
Pittsburgh ran out to a 20-7 lead in the third quarter, but two touchdown passes from Warner and a safety gave Arizona a 23-20 lead.
This time, young receiver Santonio Holmes was the hero for Pittsburgh. He caught the game-winning touchdown pass with less than a minute left to give Ward and the Steelers their second world championship in three years.
He had just 43 receiving yards in the big game, as he was playing on a sprained MCL, but nonetheless, he earned another ring.
Closing Things Out
In the 2009 offseason, Pittsburgh rewarded Ward with a four-year, $22 million contract extension and a $3 million signing bonus. He was worth every penny in the ’09 season, as he recorded 1,167 yards and six touchdowns, as well as at least 100 yards in five different games.
But star safety Troy Polamalu missed several games due to injury, and the Steelers put forth a meek defense of their league title, winning just nine games and missing the playoffs.
Pittsburgh’s prospects looked bad for the 2010 season. Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault by a Georgia woman, and as a result, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for the first four games of the campaign.
Still, the Steelers regrouped and won 12 games, and they overcame a big deficit against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round, then defeated the New York Jets in the AFC Championship to advance to yet another Super Bowl.
But Pittsburgh’s quest for a seventh Super Bowl ring failed, as they lost to Aaron Rodgers and another iconic franchise, the Green Bay Packers, despite Ward’s 78 receiving yards and one touchdown.
By now, Ward wasn’t quite as productive as he used to be. In 2010 he had just 755 yards and five touchdowns, as Mike Wallace had surpassed him as Roethlisberger’s main target in the air.
The 2011 season would be Ward’s farewell. Although his numbers were pedestrian, he reached two important milestones that year: 12,000 career receiving yards and 1,000 receptions.
His retirement became official the following March.
“The city and this organization mean the world to me. So today, as sadly as it feels to me right now, I hope today will be a good day for everybody here,” Ward said when announcing his retirement. “I don’t want to play in any other uniform. The black and gold runs deep in me and I will remain a Steeler for life.”
Stardom Off The Field
Many, if not most NFL players are relative unknowns to those who don’t watch football.
But in 2011, Ward introduced himself to a whole different group of fans when he participated in season 12 of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”
In the season finale, he won the competition (along with his professional dance partner Kym Johnson), beating out actress Kirstie Alley.
This day in #PGHistory: Hines Ward is named winner of “Dancing With the Stars”, alongside his partner; Kym Johnson. (2011)
Six years after being named Super Bowl MVP with the Steelers, Hines would end this championship finale with a Terrible Towel wave. pic.twitter.com/gkwYGWWceH
— Pittsburgh Clothing Company (@PGHClothingCo) May 24, 2018
He also made a cameo in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the 2012 installment of the Batman franchise, and a few years later he briefly became a host on news networks CNN and HLN.
Also in 2012, Ward returned to the NFL as an analyst on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
Away from the spotlight, he looked to reconcile the conflict in his head from being raised by parents from two very different cultures. In the spring of 2006, he visited his birth city of Seoul, not just to connect with his ancestral roots, but also to affect change.
It is customary for Asian Americans to visit their ancestral homes. However, those with just one Korean parent are discriminated against in Korea, something that goes back to the Korean War of the 1950s.
“I really want to raise some awareness about this issue,” said Ward. “I’m not here to change laws. But I want to shed light on [the treatment of] biracial kids, or maybe change a person’s mind who is borderline, make people look differently at a mixed-race kid because of what they’ve seen me accomplish.”
Sure enough, he donated $1 million to start the Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation in order to help mixed-race children in South Korea.
Whether one wants to consider him Korean, Black or just an American, Ward has become a star in all three cultural circles.
He is yet to get enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but some feel such an honor is inevitable.