FORT WORTH, Texas – Two years ago, Hines Ward(notes) spent Super Bowl week in a state of sleep-deprived confusion. Desperate to play against the Arizona Cardinals despite a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, the Pittsburgh Steelers' ridiculously tough wideout wore a compression sleeve that pumped ice onto the aching joint, changing its contents every three hours.
"It was a week of hell," Ward recalled Tuesday afternoon as he dined at a local restaurant, a couple of hours after experiencing the third Super Bowl media day of his stellar career. "I set the alarm for midnight, 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. every night, and I never could get my bearings. I was completely miserable. But I just had to play in that game."
As Ward prepares for Sunday's Super Bowl XLV matchup against the Green Bay Packers at Cowboys Stadium, he should be resting easy: Healthy once more, the Steelers' all-time leading receiver remains a force at 34, and the Super Bowl XL MVP has already put up career numbers (954 receptions, 11,702 yards, 85 touchdowns) that should earn him some very strong Hall of Fame consideration.
"When you've got a guy that just plays football the way it's supposed to be played, and has played it as long as he's played it, and is a championship guy with two titles, and does all the things he's done – absolutely," said Packers cornerback Charles Woodson(notes), the 2009 NFL defensive player of the year. "You've got to tell me what the criteria is if he's not [a Hall of Famer]."
Ward, however, isn't so secure in his candidacy. As he munched on a juicy hamburger Tuesday, he described himself as a perpetual overachiever who attracts attention for his physical play and strong opinions yet one who isn't duly appreciated for his productivity.
"People always say, 'He's a possession guy,' " Ward said. "At the end of the day, when I'm long gone, I just want them to say I'm a great football player. Only seven guys have ever caught 1,000 balls, and I'm closing in – and I feel like I have to do that, at a minimum, for the naysayers to quiet down.
"It seems like for me to validate that I'm a pretty good wide receiver, I've got to climb the mountaintop. It's almost like I've got to do something historic even to be considered not 'he's an elite receiver' but just that 'he's pretty good.' Because people always misperceive me."
Among those who tend to underestimate Ward are young defensive backs who aren't prepared for his deceptive elusiveness.
"I'm always getting challenged," Ward said. "They'll say, 'You're never going to get open, old guy.' I love it. You've still got to play the game. Hopefully, I can teach the young DBs some new tricks."
Ward famously abused then-Atlanta Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall(notes) in a 2006 game at the Georgia Dome, catching eight passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns. The signature moment came when Ward caught an underneath route and outran Hall – who'd recently won the NFL's Fastest Man competition and was being hailed as an emerging superstar – on a 70-yard touchdown reception, much of it after slipping out of one of his cleats.
"For me, that was gratifying because I was at home in Atlanta and going against a great corner, and it was probably the greatest game I ever had," Ward recalled. "I'm pretty sure he didn't expect that. What we studied on film was that he squatted a lot – he route-reads. We just pushed it upfield and went after him, and even after I lost my shoe he couldn't catch me – which was a great feeling."
Ward's career defied convention from the start. At the NFL scouting combine before the 1998 draft, the former Georgia standout was lying on a table and undergoing a routine medical exam when a doctor became fixated on his left knee.
"Hell, son, you don't have an ACL," the stunned doctor told Ward.
"That's good!" the player replied. "That means I can't tear it."
"No," the doctor said. "That's not good."
Ward, who ended up slipping to the third round, had apparently lost the ligament in the fourth grade after he rode his bicycle off a ramp and botched the landing, fracturing his kneecap in the process. Doctors put him in a cast but failed to diagnose the ligament tear, and his body was able to compensate. However, he has endured cartilage damage and knee pain that will eventually force him to get the joint replaced – not that it has stopped him from being one of the more aggressive offensive players of his era.
"Hines is the complete package; he's what most receivers want to model ourselves after," Bengals wideout Chad Ochocinco(notes) said of his AFC North rival. "Everyone talks about Jerry Rice, of course, but Hines is a great player too. When you think about a receiver, you want to be like Hines Ward. He goes across the middle and catches the ball, blocks his ass off and wins."
"He took me out of one play, when I was a decoy, and he said, 'I told you, don't mess with me old man,' " Ward recalled. "On the next play, he blitzed from the backside and I came across and popped him hard. I said, 'The old man dropped your ass.' He looked up and said, 'You got me.' "
Ward, whose career has included pairings with three explosive receivers – ex-Steelers Plaxico Burress(notes) and Santonio Holmes(notes) and current Pittsburgh deep threat Mike Wallace(notes) – long ago dwarfed the statistical accomplishments of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, two '70s standouts who helped the franchise to its first four Super Bowl crowns and ended up in the Hall of Fame. He says he has learned to focus less on numbers and more on doing whatever it takes to help his team add to its record six Super Bowl triumphs.
Two years ago in Tampa, Ward endured the round-the-clock icing of his ailing knee and – with the help of pain medicine, a cutting-edge platelet-rich plasma injection and some old-fashioned toughness – willed himself onto the field. He had a 38-yard reception on the game's second play from scrimmage, and though Ward caught just one more pass (for five yards), he stayed in to take some of the heat off Holmes, who ended up earning MVP honors three years after Ward turned the trick in Detroit.
"The first catch, that was all adrenaline," Ward recalled. "After that, my knee was in excruciating pain. But I didn't want to quit on my team. I said [to Holmes], 'Tone, you've got to get open.' I knew I had to at least be a decoy."
Now Ward looks forward to a Super Bowl in which he'll face Woodson and a strong Packers secondary at full strength. Though there has been speculation he might retire if he earns a third ring, Ward scoffs at the notion.
"Man, I'm not even thinking about retirement," he said Tuesday, just before heading upstairs for a post-lunch nap. "I hear those questions and it's like, 'You're pushing me out.' I'm supposed to have been falling off since Super Bowl XL. After the game two years ago, Santonio was supposedly taking over. My knee still killed me all of that next season, and I caught 95 balls.
"The thing is, a lot of the negativity has been the reason I'm where I am today. That's why I've always played with a chip on my shoulder. That's why winning the third Super Bowl would be so sweet. It's like, 'What are you going to say now?' "
Rest assured that if he helps the Steelers to victory on Sunday, Ward will find something he perceives as a slight to push him forward all the way to Canton.