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Ward has glad hands

It’s easy to catch Steeler with a smile

Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward loves to have fun with football, and on Tuesday he was wigging out in an effort to emulate teammate Troy Polamalu. Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward loves to have fun with football, and on Tuesday he was wigging out in an effort to emulate teammate Troy Polamalu. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / February 3, 2011

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FORT WORTH — He stepped off the plane, his smile as bright as the flawless diamond studs that decorate each ear.

There was a black Stetson, embellished black button-down shirt, jeans held up by a belt with a giant buckle adorned with a yellow “S’’ and black cowboy boots, an homage to Dallas, where he and his Steelers teammates had landed for Super Bowl XLV.

All of it was just part of the Hines Ward credo: Come to work, but have fun doing it.

“That’s how I’ve always approached it,’’ Ward said yesterday. “I can joke around and do a lot of things in the workplace but when I step on that field, I’m all about getting better. I don’t want to take a step back.

“But at the same time, it’s football. Something we’ve been doing our whole lives. It’s still a business, but you can have fun at the workplace.’’

The smile he wore at the airport is one that often can be seen on game days. It is a bit of an oxymoron, that a man known for dispensing bone-rattling blocks and is the all-time leading receiver for one of the NFL’s storied franchises would find things to smile about during a game. Ward readily acknowledges he has good reason to be happy.

In the immediate, he’s making his third Super Bowl appearance, and is 2 for 2 with an MVP trophy to show for his previous trips; in the long term, he’s playing the game he came to love as a kid growing up in the Atlanta area. He ditched baseball for football in high school, when he was both the starting quarterback and strong safety/rover linebacker for Forest Park High.

He loved being under center and dishing out hits to opposing running backs in the same game.

Ward stayed in-state for college, heading to Georgia, but nearly left the school when his versatility actually became a liability: he was the backup quarterback and running back, and coaches were hesitant to use him at receiver lest he get hurt at that position.

His mother, Young, supported his choice to transfer, but after stepping back and thinking it though (“I’m an emotional guy,’’ he said), he elected to stay and went on to record 144 catches, second-most in school history.

A third-round pick of the Steelers in 1998, Ward has missed just six games in his career (out of 224, including postseason), and in doing so has totaled 959 catches, eighth in league history.

Antwaan Randle El, who returned to the Steelers this season after four years with the Redskins, said Ward isn’t the typical diva receiver.

“Hines is a guy, ‘I want the ball. Let me get the ball.’ But he does it in a very different way. He’s very selfless about it,’ ’’ Randle El said. “He’ll be telling you on the sideline, ‘I got this open, let me get this,’ but if he don’t get it, he isn’t tripping. If someone else catches it, he’s going to go get a block for that guy.’’

Ward has become known for his crushing blocks – he broke Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers’s jaw with a crackback block in 2008 — though to some he’s a dirty player because he will blindside guys.

In the run-up to the AFC Championship game last month, Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine called Ward “the toughest guy on the field when no one is looking.’’

To Randle El, Ward’s hits were a sight to behold when he first arrived in Pittsburgh in 2002.

“A wide receiver who is knocking people out. Yeah, he catches a lot of balls, makes a lot of plays, but he will knock you out,’’ Randle El said. “That’s one thing when I came here as a rookie I realized and thought, ‘This is how I’ve got to try to play.’ ’’

When Emmanuel Sanders was drafted by the Steelers this year, he was excited to get the chance to play and learn from Ward.

Unlike some veterans, Ward embraces his role as a mentor.

“I was just trying to get in there and get under his wing,’’ Sanders said. “In meetings, when he’s talking, I constantly listen to him and try to see the game how he sees it because everything that he has accomplished I want to accomplish for myself. I know he’s going to help me in all phases of it.

“Hines is a great guy. Hines understands that it isn’t about Hines Ward; it’s about the team and winning.’’

Ward has fielded questions recently about his future, and about how much longer he can play. He acknowledges he’s getting older – he’ll be 35 in March – it takes his body longer to recover from the rigors of the season.

But yesterday, holding court on the stage he so clearly appreciates, he didn’t seem like he’d be giving up this line of work and this brand of fun anytime soon.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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