The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.

APRIL  2012


A Classy 401K

by Jerry Keys

Everyone was caught up in the hoopla. The Denver Broncos were flirting with a perfect season and Minnesota Vikings were steamrolling opponents enroute to a 15-1 mark. Most fans saw this as John Elway's last year in the NFL after claiming his elusive Super Bowl ring the previous year. Football fans cheered on a Denver and Minnesota Super Bowl. Elway got his wish of a second Bowl win and the Vikings were not their opponent, they were upset one game short. Elway rode off into the sunset turning down the dreams of three straight Bowl wins to cap off a career.

Meanwhile a few rookies made big splashes that season. Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were each highly touted QBs and Indianapolis had the top choice in the draft. What a difference one draft slot can make. Only a handful of players are left from the 1998 draft. For the Pittsburgh Steelers it was by no means a 1974 caliber draft (four Hall of Famers) but this month the final chapter was written. Three players made their mark in Steeler history, Deshea Townsend spent twelve of his thirteen years in the Steel City, Alan Faneca spent the first ten years with the Steelers (and final three with the NY Jets and Arizona) and earned six first-team All-Pro selections. A strong case can be made for Faneca's Hall of Fame enshrinement. He was the Steelers #1 draft pick, Townsend was a fourth rounder. Their third round pick (and fourth overall) was a QB converted receiver out of Georgia, Hines Ward.

Jerry Keys

Former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher was well-known for not gift wrapping starting jobs to rookies or second year players. Most players began earning their stripes on special teams (see early years of James Harrison). Traditionally the Steelers were a predominately running team with a ferocious defense. Their game plan was to control time of possession and once they gained a two touchdown lead, it was running time and stop us if you can. Receivers were expected to catch passes but to also perform critical blocks, against the secondary, linebackers and sometimes defensive linemen. That formula just seemed to fit Hines to a tee. He knew he would not get the catches he would have if the West Coast Offense were implemented. It was not until 2001; Ward became the team's "go to" receiver. Following an injury to Jerome Bettis late in '01, the team abandoned the run and took to the air. Over a six-year period, from 2001-06, Ward collected at least 975 yards each year and at least 69 receptions.

The team returned to a run first mentality in 2004 but by that time, Ward was their top receiver. As recently as 2009, Ward collected 95 receptions. As with age comes younger and faster teammates and this was no different for Ward. With the addition of speedster Mike Wallace in '09 and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in '10, the position was becoming crowded and much younger. After an un-capped year leading up to the lockout and the need to dispense of a large amount of money to move below the cap going into the 2012 draft, Pittsburgh released several veteran players. Aaron Smith was expected to retire therefore releasing him was a logical choice. Letting defensive capitan James Farrior go and Ward were not what the team wanted but we all must remember…football is a business.

Ward made it clear he would restructure his contract any way necessary to remain a Steeler. It was not to be and as his release became official, my worst fear was seeing him in a different helmet. Ward had a couple of quite productive years left and a couple more as a back-up and mentor, as he was well-known for in Pittsburgh. Hines knew his role would be diminished with all the younger talent coming in but he never put himself before the team. That attitude is something not seen much in today's sports. At his press conference, to announce his retirement, Ward summed it up best, "Today, I'm officially retiring a Pittsburgh Steeler. And as much as I will miss football, my teammates, coaches and everything about the game, I don't want to play it in any other uniform. The black and gold runs deep in me, and I will remain a Steeler for life."

A moist flow of water streamed down numerous eyes. From the two women who watched the press conference at a department store in Pittsburgh to the construction workers near Monroeville.

The emotional press conference was reminiscent of Cowher's in January 2007. And after I continually berate overpaid players with egos comparable to satellites of Jupiter, why would I have any emotional connection to Ward's retirement? He had a love for the town of Pittsburgh, it is well documented he would ride through downtown Pittsburgh and wave to fans along the walkways. He was approachable as long as it was not in 'mob form.' He loved the city who loved him. And that was the reason behind him turning down millions of dollars to go elsewhere.

Ward's career concludes with 1,000 receptions (8th all-time) and 12,083 yards (18th). He walked in the footsteps of greats, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, and emerged as an equal. The one moment which stands out for me was after they lost the 2004 AFC Championship Game, Bettis announced his retirement…without a Super Bowl victory. Ward was extremely emotional about not being able to send him into retirement with a Bowl win. Bettis returned and was given the honor the nest year. In a perfect world, Ward would for some obscure reason, be re-signed by the Steelers and ride the roller coaster to another Bowl win, as Bettis did.

Retirement is a simple fact of life. Everyone ages and their body begins to fail them. To me it was yesterday Derek Jeter was a pimply kid somewhat awestruck with the Yankee tradition. Now he is Yankee tradition. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, I would be in awe of meeting a ball player. I would get tongue tied and stumble over my thoughts. Time passed and the heroes of my yesterdays became more human. Players younger than me never seemed to be as spectacular. I had my old heroes from my youth to compare them to. Every now and then or maybe every blue moon, a younger player comes along who garnishes my respect as did players from my childhood. Hines Ward you are one of them. I have been a Steeler fan and always will be; you were a Steeler great and always will be. Best wishes for your post-football career.