Written by Jason Robinson
The image is etched in my memory: Ben Roethlisberger gets the ball from Jeff Hartings the center, turns right and pitches back left to Fast Willie Parker. It's a sweep left and the Seattle Seahawks have to respect Parker's speed. As Parker runs he hands the ball to Antwaan Randle El on the Reverse and, with help from a key block from Roethlisberger, Randle El throws the ball to an open Hines Ward for the touchdown. Ward skipped into the end zone, smiling as he always does, sealing the victory in Super Bowl XL. Ring number five, one for the thumb. Hines Ward was the MVP with five catches for 123 yards and a touchdown, plus one rush for 18 yards, and it was the first time I truly gave thought to his being a candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Since then Ward has been the real man of steel as one of the Steelers truest leaders and unquestioned captain of the wide receivers. His play over the years has caused him to have virtually every Steelers receiving record. The only Steelers' records he doesn't have are receptions in a single game, receiving yards in a season, receiving yards in a game and 100-yard games in a season. All the important numbers, though, he has. He even has the hardware: two Rings in three Super Bowl appearences, including the aforementioned MVP award. So he's an all-time great from a Steelers standpoint, but the real question is whether he makes the HOF or not.
When I think of someone worthy of the Hall of Fame I think of someone truly great. Like Peter King once said, "This isn't the Hall of Very Good." Well said, and well received. Well, then, what is "great?" We could use the dictionary definition for the word, but for these purposes it essentially means someone who is or does something that is large or prodigious in proportion, has significant impact, value and worth, has influence on others and leaves behind some form of legacy. In the case of the NFL, it would also mean being the best for a period of time. That means we can't just look at numbers. You can skew numbers to fit whatever you want. I could throw Terrell Owen's numbers at you and present them in such a way to make you think he's the greatest thing since Stretch Armstrong. *sigh* I miss that toy. It was just so cool! Stretch him all around anything I wanted. But I digress... Anyway, the truth is that Owens has great numbers to be sure, but he also has been a pariah wherever he has played. He's torn teams apart and, on top of that, you never had to worry about your popcorn in the playoffs because he's never won a significant playoff game. So is he truly great? No.
Not that the HOF necessarily takes character into consideration, but being arrested for Cocaine possession, i.e. Michael Irvin, is something that happens outside of the game. Derailing and/or breaking teams up, though, directly deals with the game itself. So that means that one such as the aforementioned Owens would fail when graded against that particular criterium. Does Ward? How, in fact, does Ward fair against the criteria set up in general? As I alluded to before, numbers are only one part of this. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, he has the numbers to warrant having his smiling bust in Canton despite never being the absolute best any given year. So let's look at the proposed definition and go from there.
Part of the definition proposed was "someone who is or does something prodigious in proportion." Hines Ward has certainly had a prodigious career as he holds all of the most significant of Steelers receiving records as was mentioned before. He has been a key component to reaching the playoffs 7 of the last 10 years and to reaching the Super Bowl three times in six years. He is a four-time Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl MVP and still one of the best blocking WRs in the League.
Another criteria put forth was one's impact, value and worth. The "impact" Ward has had on players over the years is well documented. Ed Reed found this out in a 2004 when he wasn't paying close enough attention to his surroundings and was knocked out cold by a legal block by Ward. So clean and devastating was the blow that Ward immediately signaled to the Ravens' sideline for them to come get him. If it had been a cartoon there would have been little birds flying around Reed's head. After the game Reed was asked what he thought of the hit. He said, "(snore)". Then there was the, again, legal block on Keith Rivers in '08. Rivers also neglected to keep his head on a swivel as to what was going on in his vicinity and paid for it. The block so jolted Rivers that it broke his jaw. You can find Rivers at the downtown Cincinnati Jamba Juice drinking his dinner if you want to ask him his thoughts on Hines Ward's blocking ability. I bring these examples up because they and others resulted in a rules change by the NFL that is affectionately (ahem) referred to as "The Hines Ward Rule." That, ladies and gentlemen, is impact. The value and worth part of that is simple: he's incredibly valuable to his team as he not only does whatever is needed for his team to win, but they see that this is the case and have voted him captain or team MVP multiple times.
The influence and legacy that Ward will leave behind is summed up in a series of names: Burress, Randle El, Holmes, Wallace, and, soon to surely be added, Sanders and Brown. All of whom are at least Super Bowl participants and two have Super Bowl game-winning touchdown catches. His influence on them is great. These receivers to a man have spoken extremely highly of Ward and his influence, work ethic and leadership on the field and in the locker room. He is greatly respected and admired as a football player and as a man. When I watch NFL Films replays of practices, games or otherwise and I see the other receivers standing there listening to him as if to a father, I can't help but to smile. When the word "honor" is used in conjunction with Hines Ward, it isn't contextually, "Yes, Your Honor." The honor, admiration and respect for Ward is real and is boundless. Even when opposing players hate him, they still have to respect him. That, my friends, is greatness.
So, yeah, I could have thrown out stat after stat to make a case for Hines Ward to don a yellow jacket, but he's greater than the sum of his parts. Pure stats don't do him justice, because he's a Hall of Famer on and off the field. Will he get in on the first ballot? I'd have to say no, but I believe that a Hall of Famer is simply a Hall of Famer. So expect to see him up on that podium, oh, sometime in early 2020's. But expect him nonetheless.