Hines Ward is quick to recall a 2008 game between the Steelers and Texans, a game where the former Steelers wideout caught two early touchdowns as Pittsburgh won in a rout.
While the Steelers spent the majority of the second half running the ball and protecting their big lead, the Texans aired it out while utilizing the talents of their No. 1 wideout, Andre Johnson. The Steelers ultimately won the game, but Johnson finished with gaudier numbers. It's just one example of Ward winning the game but, based on circumstances outside of his control, not putting up bigger numbers than one of his peers.
That's one of the reasons why Ward feels that he's not currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite being a semifinalist each of the past six years. While he twice achieved the ultimate team goal of winning a Super Bowl, one specific individual accolade might be what has kept Ward from receiving the greatest individual honor a professional football player can receive.
"The feedback, or what I've been hearing, is that, 'Well, you're (weren't) an All-Pro,'" Ward said during a recent interview with CBS Sports. "Well, I wasn't in an offense to be an All-Pro. We had All-Pro offensive linemen and we had All-Pro running backs because that's what our offense was."
Ward spent the majority of his 14-year career playing in a run-first offense. Instead of going deep and putting up big stats, Ward was doing the yeoman's work of catching passes over the middle and making blocks to help open running space for Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.
When he was called upon to make plays in the passing game, Ward almost always delivered. With the running game neutralized, Ward made two of the biggest plays in Super Bowl XL, including the game-winning touchdown catch that led to him earning game MVP honors. Ward made various other big catches in clutch moments during his career while helping the Steelers return to the NFL's upper echelon.
"I look at what I did in the 2000s," Ward said. "To go to three Super Bowls, winning two. I was an intricate part of that team just as much as anybody within our organization. But as my mom always told me, only control what you can control. I can't control (the Hall of Fame), so just having my name mentioned amongst some of the greats to ever wear the uniform, that's a blessing in itself for me and that's what I'll hang my hat on, for now."
Antwaan Randle El’s 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL! #HereWeGo #Steelers pic.twitter.com/4bC8kNNU9V— Blitzburgh (@Blitz_Burgh) November 5, 2019
Ward doesn't necessarily agree with Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin's sentiment that, had the Steelers beaten the Packers in Super Bowl XLV, he would already have a bronze bust and gold jacket.
"I don't think I should have to win three Super Bowls," Ward said. "Most people don't have one and they're in the Hall, so you're saying I have to climb the mountain to win three just to get a bid? For whatever reason, it is what it is."
A third-round pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, Ward initially made a name for himself in the NFL as a special teams standout. He won a starting job in 1999 despite Pittsburgh drafting fellow wideout Troy Edwards in the first round during the offseason. Once in the starting lineup, Ward quickly added to his reputation as a hard-nosed player who embraced every aspect of being a football player.
Ward began to receive league-wide acclaim for the work he was doing in 2001. He was named to his first of four consecutive Pro Bowls while helping the Steelers reach the AFC Championship Game. Ward's success that season was significant given the fact that Pittsburgh lost Bettis for the final stretch of the regular season after the future Hall of Fame back sustained an injury.
Ward had his best statistical season a year later despite the Steelers changing quarterbacks. Pittsburgh went from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox, who before that season had not started in an NFL game since 1992 and had yet to win a regular season start. Ward had another big year in 2003 before recording his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard campaign with a rookie quarterback under center: Ben Roethlisberger. Ward was in his seventh season -- and had already earned three Pro Bowl nods -- when Big Ben began his Hall of Fame career with the Steelers.
"My best years, I didn't even have Ben Roethlisberger," Ward said. "And remember, I had Ben when he was young. I didn't have Ben when he was a veteran, calling his own plays and slinging the ball 60 yards."
Regardless, Ward's career numbers are right up there with some of the most-prolific wideouts in league history. He's 27th in league history with 12,083 yards, just ahead of Hall of Fame wideouts Michael Irvin and Calvin Johnson. He's one of just 14 receivers in league history with 1,000 career receptions. He has 18 more career catches than Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss, who was inducted into Canton in his first year of eligibility. Ward is tied for 16th all-time with 85 touchdown catches, the same total that Hall of Fame wideouts Lance Alworth and Paul Warfield had during their careers.
Ward's postseason totals are what really puts his Hall of Fame argument over the top. He is ninth all-time with 1,181 postseason receiving yards and tied for fifth with 10 touchdown catches. His three touchdown catches during the 2005 postseason helped the Steelers become the first sixth seed to win the Super Bowl.
Ward played in an era with some of the most prolific and high-profile receivers in history, a group that includes Moss, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Chad Johnson, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Torry Holt, Reggie Wayne and Steve Smith Sr., among others. Unlike Ward, many of those players were the focal points of pass-first offenses. Calvin Johnson, Moss, Harrison, and Owens earned a combined 15 All-Pro nods and are each in the Hall of Fame. Conversely, Holt, Smith, Ward, Wayne, Chad Johnson and Andre Johnson received a combined eight All-Pro nods and are not in the Hall despite putting up similar numbers and, in the case of Holt, Ward, and Wayne, being integral parts of championship teams.
"To me, I don't know what all goes into All-Pro," Ward said. "One, when you're not in an offense that's catered to help you be an All-Pro receiver. And two, when you've got Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, year in and year out, putting up outstanding stats. But that shouldn't rain on my parade. I look at the guys that are on that list, and I feel like I should be in the mix with all those guys. ... For people to sit there and say, 'Well, he doesn't have All-Pro,' I just laugh and I chuckle because to me, that makes no sense."
As it currently stands, Ward remains the standard as far as Steelers' receivers are concerned. He remains atop the team's career record book for receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. Ward joined several of his former teammates in the Steelers' Hall of Honor in 2019.
Ward said he is surprised he is still the Steelers' career receiving leader 11 years after he played his final down for the black and gold.
"Considering the game is all passing now," Ward said with a laugh. "I think all the records are made to get broken by these great, elite wideouts. To see my name still on top of the list as far as receiving categories is a blessing for me, considering all the great players. Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Antonio Brown, all the guys that I played with and then the the young group of guys, Diontae (Johnson) and Chase (Claypool) and (George) Pickens. I mean, these guys are pretty damn good.
"A lot of talent that's gone through that organization. So to sit on top, I'm thankful, but all records are made to be broken. Now, you have the 17 games in a passing league, so who knows if it holds up. But at the end of the day, I think me being on top speaks on longevity and having productivity year in and year out and playing my whole entire career for a great organization like Pittsburgh. ... Even though I'm not in the Hall, just being mentioned amongst one of the greatest to ever put on the black and gold uniform is a blessing for me. I'm very thankful for that."
Ward is currently serving as an ambassador for the NFL Alumni Association's Huddle Up: Let's Talk Obesity campaign, which is aimed at encouraging men to open up about excess weight gain and associated health. Ward is hoping his own fitness journey can help inspire other men to pursue a more healthy and active lifestyle. Ward said that a trip to the doctor inspired his changes to his lifestyle.
"I tried to be active as a player," Ward said. "I then did 'Dancing With the Stars' and I did an Ironman. It wasn't until I got into coaching, you're sitting at the desk all day, eating and watching film. And then you hit COVID, when you're not coaching, sitting around watching a lot of TV. ... As a retired player, you get older, your metabolism starts to go, you can't sit around and just eat everything that you want to eat.
"I've still got a ways to go, but it's trying to figure out my habits and lifestyle. Getting sleep, not eating a whole bag of Cheetos (laughs). ... For me, it was a lifestyle decision. I wanted to live longer and I wanted to be healthier. ... Just to spread the word, talking about my past history, if I can impact one person to help get off the couch and help go to the doctor, do a checkup, to help invest in their time, that's the whole premise of why I wanted to be a part of this whole campaign, because I think it's important."
Ward said that some of his old teammates have started a friendly wager inside their group chat based on who has lost the most weight in retirement. Having a support system, Ward said, is key to having a more healthy and balanced life.
"I've got a great group of teammates. No matter what we do in life, we're just competitors," Ward said. "It just gives me extra motivation to stay on top of my game when I'm competing with my teammates when it comes to losing weight and getting back in shape."