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Ward aims to lay hands on Super Bowl trophy

Friday, July 25, 2003

The last time we saw Hines Ward, big tears were rolling down his cheeks. This was after the Steelers' 34-31 overtime playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. As usual, Ward had played a little harder than anyone on the field, in this particular game on an ankle that has been badly sprained in the first half. And, as usual, he took the defeat a little harder.

"You work so hard for so long, then to lose like that ... " Ward said. "You think about it the whole off-season. 'What if I had done this? What if I had done that?' It really does eat at you."

The good news is Ward has recovered. Since that awful January night in Nashville he played in his second consecutive Pro Bowl. He was married in the Bahamas in May. And today he will report to Latrobe, maybe not with a smile on his face because, as he put it, "Everybody hates training camp," but certainly with a mission in mind.

"We have the talent to win it all," Ward said. "Our focus has to be, 'Let's put a whole year together and get it done.'"

It's a nicer thought than the Pirates' debt-to-earnings ratio, isn't it?

We need a happy sports story around here. Ward thinks the Steelers can provide it. If it happens and they do finally get to another Super Bowl, he figures to lead the way.

That goes beyond his franchise-record 112 catches last season or the fact his teammates voted him co-most valuable player with Joey Porter. He sets the tone by playing hard. The guy is ferocious from the first play to the last.

"It's all about passion," Ward said. "Nobody makes me block the way I do. I don't get paid any more for giving up my body like that. That's just how football is supposed to be played. I like to think other guys see it and say, 'If Hines can do that, let me do it, too.'"

Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El couldn't have a better role model. If they come anywhere close to Ward's level of consistency, the Steelers' offense should be a joy to watch.

Burress continued to grow last season and finished with 1,325 receiving yards. But he still took off too many plays. Lost in all of the angst surrounding Dewayne Washington's missed tackle and running-into-the-kicker penalty in overtime was a ball Burress dropped at the Titans' 15 midway through the fourth quarter. The Steelers had to settle for a Jeff Reed field goal instead of a possible touchdown.

Randle El had a marvelous rookie year, especially considering he was a quarterback in college. But he made his share of rookie mistakes, none bigger than on the Steelers' final play in regulation against the Titans. He ran the wrong route on third-and-10 from the Tennessee 40.

"You can't just say, 'That's one play, I'll get 'em the next time,'" Ward said. "Those are big plays, especially at crunch time ...

"That consistency starts in practice. As wide receivers, we have to prove to Tommy [Maddox] that he can count on us. He has to know that we'll get it done for him. You have to earn that. Speaking from experience, I know that, early in my career, there were times Kordell [Stewart] might have wanted to come to me, but he didn't feel comfortable doing it so he looked elsewhere. I hated that feeling. I worked hard to correct it."

It's safe to say Maddox has no concerns about going to Ward.

"When it's time to get open, I know I'm going to get open and make a play," Ward said. "Even if I don't catch 100 balls this season, I'm going to be a better and smarter wide receiver."

Ward knows what the Steelers' offense must do to be successful. "We've got to eliminate the turnovers. If we do that, we'll be top three in the league, no doubt." He said he's convinced Maddox, who threw 19 interceptions last season, will do his part.

"Tommy traveled such a long path to get where he is now. I don't think he's going to allow anything" -- not even a contract that pays him less than backup Charlie Batch -- "to jeopardize that. I can't wait to get out there to help him."

There's one more reason Ward is eager to get started again.

"I want to see what Coach [Mike] Mularkey has planned for us. He's the innovator. He's the main pioneer. I'm sure whatever he comes up with, it'll put us in our best position to be successful. I can't wait to see how he's going to get the ball in my hands or Antwaan's hands."

As a receiver, Ward hopes all the talk he's been hearing about the Steelers going to a pass-first offense is true, but he has his doubts. He's not ready to write off the power running game, long the Steelers' trademark. Certainly, he's not ready to write off Jerome Bettis.

"Jerome called me this week. He was geeked. He's healthy and happy and ready to go to training camp. It's nice when one of your leaders is that excited about the season."

Bettis' motivation is to prove he can still play at a high level. Ward's is different. It goes back to that game against the Titans. For that matter, it goes back to the AFC championship game a year earlier when the Steelers came up short against the New England Patriots.

"That feeling is bad enough once let alone twice," Ward said. "I don't want there to be a third time."

The only tears Ward wants to cry in January are tears of happiness.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.

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