|Hines Ward should be a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Freeman says. (Getty Images)|
Hines Ward has always cared deeply about his legacy, his place in history. Don't ever let anyone -- especially Ward -- tell you differently. There's a scene that happened not long after Ward won his Super Bowl MVP that illustrates this.
It was during one of the seasons when some around the NFL were calling Ward dirty following a handful of hard blocks. Ward has had to fight off this charge repeatedly and this year was no different. He said something that went like this: All the great wide receivers in history block hard. All of them. Including some great wide receivers who played for the Steelers.
He was right, of course. Ward's hard blocks approached the line, maybe dipped his tippy-toes a millimeter past it, but Ward was never dirty. He was rugged and skilled and possessed one of the all-time great hearts in football history.
Now the Steelers have announced that Ward is no longer a part of their immediate future. It's possible once the Steelers solve their immense salary cap hell the team brings him back, but that doesn't seem realistic at this moment.
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This is perhaps the trickiest part of Ward's long and great career. The end part. When it all stops. I've reported before that Steelers players around Ward expect him to retire, but I also know the pride of the greats, and this is the trap waiting for him. Does he stubbornly try to prove the Steelers wrong and finish his career elsewhere or does he retire and wait for the Hall of Fame?
Here's hoping Ward doesn't fall for the intoxicating fumes of payback and leaves the NFL as a Steeler only.
Other greats have fallen into the prickly trap. Joe Montana went to Kansas City, and though he had success there, it was still insanely crazy to see him in a Chiefs uniform. Jerry Rice played in Oakland -- again, insanity.
The desire to keep playing when others say you're done is a universal one. Sometimes it's about the money, but in many cases, it's not. I'm told Ward has done a good job of protecting his cash, so finances will not be a part of his decision.
Money wasn't the case with some other greats, either. Patrick Ewing stayed on far too long, as did Sugar Ray Leonard. Johnny Unitas finished his career in San Diego when he was clearly too injured and pained to play at a high level. Same with Emmitt Smith.
The ultimate example, the one that trumps all others, was Brett Favre. No athlete's ego more marred his judgment about when his skills were drained. We see how that turned out: more texts than touch passes.
Many of those players still ended up in the Hall of Fame. It didn't ruin the long and gorgeous career of Unitas that he played on one leg with the Chargers, but it did cause an almost historical wince. The same will go for Ward if he finishes his career elsewhere.
There will be plenty of argument about if Ward is a Hall of Famer. To me, there should be no discussion. He should be a lock. Ward won two rings, was a Super Bowl MVP, and leads perhaps the most storied franchise in the NFL in career catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Maybe as important has been Ward's longevity. He turns 36 next week and played 14 NFL seasons, most at an extremely high level. Only recently has Ward become average. Mostly, he always played hard. He always played well. He always played tough.
Said Steelers president Art Rooney II: "Hines has been an integral part of our success since we drafted him in 1998 and we will forever be grateful for what he has helped us achieve. He has meant so much to this organization, both on and off the field, and we appreciate his efforts over the past 14 years. Hines' accomplishments are numerous, and he will always be thought of as one of the all-time great Steelers. We wish him nothing but the best."
Ward isn't the same player. He's clearly slowed. It's only a matter of time before a Daniel Snyder type hoping to make a splash off a big name offers Ward some sort of highly incentivized contract and Ward limps to the end of his career in a strange uniform on a distant field.
The pull for Ward to try to prove the Steelers wrong will be immense, but hopefully he resists.
And never puts on another uniform.