Ward trying to cement legacy

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

TAMPA, Fla. -- Eleven-year veteran Hines Ward has a unique nickname amongst his peers.

His Pittsburgh Steelers teammates fondly call him "Papa Smurf."

"He definitely has the same head," said a laughing Nate Washington, who based the moniker on the cartoon character. "He's the person that's going to keep us all sane and keep us all level. But at the same time, when the fight breaks out he's going to be the first one to swing. That's the type of guy that you need leading your team."
"Papa Smurf is like the character that looks over all the little young smurfs," Ward added proudly. "You have Vanity Smurf and all different type of personality smurfs, and everybody comes to Papa Smurf for advice."

On the surface, "Papa Smurf" is chasing his second championship when Pittsburgh faces the Arizona Cardinals Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII. But looking at Ward's situation a little deeper, he also has a chance to cement his NFL legacy.

Although his numbers aren't as eye-popping as contemporaries Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison, Ward is a strong candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But number crunchers might shy away from Ward, who played in a run-oriented offense his entire career, because he trails the aforementioned receivers of his era in every major statistical category. But a second championship could be the great equalizer, as Ward would own more rings than Moss, Owens and Harrison combined.

"I'm probably a little [biased], but I think he's the best receiver in the game," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "You can never ask anymore from anybody with what he does. His blocking from a receiver, he catches the football, he's able to have all of these great receiving statistics even though we're a running offense.

"To have that whole package, I don't think anybody in the NFL has that. I hope that he's remembered as a Hall of Famer, because that's what we all believe that he is."

One of a kind

What exactly is Ward's legacy?

It's hard to compare Ward, because he's an unconventional receiver in so many ways. Ward doesn't shy away from contact. He uses his smarts more than his athleticism, and he will be remembered as the most devastating blocker ever at receiver.

"I look at Hall of Fame players as guys who do things that no one else could do," Washington said. "There are plenty of guys that put up ridiculous numbers. But there's not too many receivers that you can say, 'Hey, he broke that guy's jaw.' He actually has people feared and working to not get hit by him during games. It's amazing to see those type of things."

Many defenders do not like Ward's hit-or-be-hit attitude. In addition to breaking the jaw of Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers, Ward has also doled out several concussions with big blocks.

"Some guys might like me, some guys call me dirty," Ward said. "There will be some kids that want to be me one day, but I don't know. When I leave this game one day, all I want people to say is he was one heck of a football player. That's all I can really ask for. It's up to you guys [in the media] to vote your opinion, judge how you want."

In terms of numbers, Ward currently holds Pittsburgh's all-time marks for games played (170), career receptions (800), receiving yards (9,780) and receiving touchdowns (72).

Ward also shines brightest in the postseason. He's played in four AFC Championship Games and Sunday will be his second Super Bowl. He also has the Super Bowl XL MVP award after recording five receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh's 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in February 2006.

"In my eyes, he's one of the best football players I've ever been around," said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, who was Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator during its last title run. "He did everything that we asked him to do and more. ...Anytime you had a situation where somebody had to make a play, he was the guy who always did that."


The status of Ward's knee could go down as one of the most overpublicized stories in Super Bowl history.

Immediately following the AFC Championship Game, Ward said he will play in Super Bowl XLIII despite a sprained MCL. The injury normally takes 2-4 weeks of recovery time.

"It's kind of cool that everyone is worried about my knee," said Ward, who likely will wear a brace in Sunday's game. Ward practiced Thursday. He sat out all of last week's practices in Pittsburgh, in addition to the team's first practice in Tampa on Wednesday.

Playing under these circumstances could bolster his legend.

Ward has benefited from the time off, but he will not be 100 percent. But a big performance despite a gimpy knee in the Super Bowl is the type of story line that creates long-lasting memories in the eyes of football historians.

Will "Papa Smurf" answer the call?