Of all the heartfelt words spoken by Hines Ward today, the ones that should be remembered by everyone are these: "This is the right thing to do."
Ward, 36, announced his retirement after 14 seasons with two Super Bowl rings, about every receiving record in Steelers history and no regrets. He ended a career the way it should end -- leave on your own terms and leave with your team.
Peyton Manning will speak a few hours after Ward, celebrating his new team and $96-million contract. Ward's goodbye, though, proved to be priceless, especially in the business-like climate of the NFL.
Ward smiled when he saw former teammates Jerome Bettis, James Harrison, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel in the crowd. He wiped away tears about two minutes into reading his speech, sniffling after every other word he spoke about his love for his coaches, teammates and Steelers Nation. He chuckled when he addressed the rumor that he had signed a three-year deal with the Ravens ("We know that won't ever happen," he said with that famous smirk). He then began his walk away from the game as he stepped off the stage, giving hugs to Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin.
"And as much as I will miss football, my teammates, coaches and everything about the game, I don’t want to play in any other uniform," said Ward, who appropriately wore a black shirt, black jacket and a black and gold tie. "The black and gold runs deep with me, and I will remain a Steeler for life.”
The Steelers are Ward's life, and he's just as much a fabric of every Terrible Towel. His legacy is all about toughness and winning, like the Steelers' greats that preceded him.
Ward's accomplishments show why he is among the best wide receivers of his era. He ranks eighth all-time in the NFL with 1,000 catches, led the Steelers in receiving for 11 straight seasons and was named Super Bowl MVP in February 2006 in the Steelers' triumph over the Seattle Seahawks.
But it's his impact beyond the numbers that show what type of football player he was. Ward was never afraid of the dirty work. In fact, he kind of enjoyed it. Ward defined hard work and sacrificing your body for the good of the team. He is the toughest blocking wide receiver in NFL history, so tough that he got an NFL rule named after him.
Ward did everything for the Steelers, and he did it like a Steeler. He carried the ball like Bettis. He took down opponents with the same ferociousness as Jack Lambert. And, as the numbers show, he caught more passes than John Stallworth and Lynn Swann.
"I wanted to go down as one of the greats to wear black and gold," Ward said.
The lasting impression from Ward's half-hour news conference was his love of the team.
His biggest regret? "My [contract] holdout. Looking back, I wish it never came to that," Ward said. "I never wanted to be thought of as that type of player."
His legacy? "Play unselfishly and never lose your competitive spirit," Ward said. "Hopefully, I showed that."
It's that competitiveness that initially caused Ward to want to continue playing after the Steelers released him on Feb. 29. He could have ended up somewhere -- besides Baltimore -- where he would have been the No. 3 receiver and veteran leader.
But it wouldn't have been for the Steelers, the team that gave a tough little receiver out of Georgia a chance to play. In the end, Ward knew the right thing to do.
"It took a lot of time for me to reflect and get away," Ward said. "I want to do whatever I could to be a Steeler, and today im making it happen.
"I am a Steeler for life. That's all I ever really wanted."