My 18-year-old daughter told me last night she was sad over the retirement of her favorite Pittsburgh Steeler, Hines Ward.
Olivia had become quite a Steelers fan over the past couple of years, primarily because of Ward (and in spite of Ben Roethlisberger), and frequently watched their games on TV. Ward has quite a following among her age group thanks to his stint last year as the charming guy with the infectious smile who won “Dancing With the Stars.”
But my daughter’s Ward fandom is really just carrying on a family tradition that goes back to when she was just a baby and her older brother and Dad were following the exploits of one of the Georgia Bulldogs’ most versatile players ever. My son Bill has a photo of himself posing with Hines on the field at Sanford Stadium before an August scrimmage and on the wall of his old room there’s a picture of Hines in the black britches from that win over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. Oh, and then there’s the Hines Ward UGA action figure, too.
There may be debate in NFL circles about whether Ward’s Super Bowl MVP career with the Steelers, where he was known for his hard play and devastating blocks as much as his clutch catches, will be enough to get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, what with the glut of wide receivers in line ahead of him, but there’s no doubt at all that he belongs in the pantheon of greatest UGA football players.
A year ago, when he was launching his “Dancing” campaign, I wrote about Hines as the Bulldog who never quit, but it’s worth recapping his Georgia career again: Recruited as a quarterback, he wound up playing running back and receiver as a freshman, then was thrown into the breach by Ray Goff as a sophomore after Mike Bobo was injured, starting at quarterback against Alabama even though he hadn’t practiced with the QBs since the previous year. The results weren’t pretty that first go-round, but when another QB injury necessitated Ward going back behind center later in the season, a legend was born.
Those who saw Ward’s valiant effort against Auburn on a freezing night in Athens will never forget the sight of him doubling over with pain from an injured wrist between plays as he almost pulled off an upset of the Tigers. He did lead the Dogs over Tech and then in the Peach Bowl set school bowl records for pass attempts, completions and yards in a losing effort against Virginia as he threw for 413 yards.
With the arrival of Jim Donnan the next year, Ward moved permanently to wide receiver for his last two seasons, though he frequently lined up in the backfield, too. Typical of his versatility was the win over Florida in 1997 when Ward had seven receptions for 85 yards, ran five times for 21 yards, completed two passes for 27 yards and returned two kickoffs for 70 yards.
All-SEC first team his senior year, Ward racked up 3,870 all-purpose yards, second only to Herschel Walker. Not coincidentally, Ward and Walker are the two Georgia players who’ve been immortalized wearing their UGA uniforms as sports action figures.
Hines’ play in that losing effort against Auburn is still one of my favorite performances by a Georgia athlete.
Chances are the charismatic Ward will wind up with a career in broadcasting of some sort, but I’d love to think he wasn’t just waxing nostalgic when he told 11 Alive not long ago that he’s always dreamed of returning to Athens to coach at UGA. “”I would love that,” he said. “That would be my ultimate dream.”
Ward may be a Steeler forever, as he said Tuesday when he tearfully announced his retirement, but he’ll also always be a shining example of the best that Georgia football has to offer.
BEST OF LUCK, CARLTON
I know some people think Carlton Thomas probably had a shove from Mark Richt in deciding to transfer elsewhere for his senior year, but I’m willing to accept at face value Richt and Thomas’ story that it was the player’s own decision.
I frankly was surprised when Richt didn’t kick Thomas off the team last season after his multiple suspensions for rules infractions, but if the Georgia coach had wanted to end Thomas’ time at UGA, it seems to me he would have done so at the end of the fall semester, rather than having him enroll for spring.
No, I think this really was just Thomas and his family looking at the depth chart, with Isaiah Crowell, Richard Samuel and Ken Malcome ahead of him and Keith Marshall likely to pass him as well, and deciding that if he was going to get any meaningful playing time, it would be somewhere else.
The diminutive Thomas has talent that unfortunately wasn’t used to its best advantage at UGA by Bobo, who too often insisted on trying to run him up the middle (invariably on third-and-long) rather than giving him the ball in space on screen passes or throws out into the flat.
Here’s wishing him a successful senior season wherever he winds up.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg