PITTSBURGH — Hines Ward believes he can still play football. The longtime Pittsburgh wide receiver known for his high-wattage smile and his bone-crunching blocks just couldn't stomach the thought of doing it in some strange uniform on some strange field with nary a Terrible Towel in sight.
"I just wouldn't feel right," Ward said.
So rather than play for a 15th season — and his first outside the Steel City — a tearful Ward opted to retire on Tuesday and secure a legacy unmatched in the franchise's long history.
"I can say I'm a Steeler for life and that's the bottom line, that's all I've really ever wanted," Ward said.
Ward holds every significant franchise receiving record, including receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. His 1,000 career catches rank eighth all time and he is one of two players with at least 1,000 receptions and two Super Bowl rings.
The decision comes three weeks after the 36-year-old was released by the Steelers in a salary cap maneuver. Ward says he was contacted by several clubs but never had any formal discussions. He insists there are no hard feelings for his release, understanding that football is a business. As if to prove the point, Ward embraced Steelers owner Art Rooney II after stepping away from the podium following the announcement.
"Thank you (Mr. Rooney) for giving a small town boy from Forest Park, Ga., a chance," Ward said.
The former third-round pick out of Georgia was due to make $4 million next season, an expensive option for a player whose role diminished significantly in 2011 when he finished with 46 receptions, the fewest since his rookie season in 1998. He embraced his role as mentor to Pro Bowlers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown even though he knew they were chewing into his playing time.
"I know the wideouts are going to be in great hands," he said. "They're full of talent."