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Hines Ward's career hard to believe

LATROBE, Pa. -- When Hines Ward thinks about his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he laughs and compares himself to Forrest Gump.

"Nobody would believe it," Ward said.

Playing in a run-oriented offense, Ward has surpassed two Hall of Famers, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, as the Steelers' all-time leading receiver. He has two Super Bowl rings, a Super Bowl MVP and four Pro Bowl appearances.

Not bad for an undersized receiver who was just a third-round draft pick in 1998 out of Georgia.

"I feel like I'm Forrest Gump," said Ward of the fictional movie character with the charmed life.

Ward enters the 2009 season with 800 catches, 9,780 yards receiving and 72 touchdowns -- three of his 12 franchise-leading accomplishments. And while winning his third Super Bowl -- and a seventh overall for the Steelers -- is still the ultimate goal for Ward, the combination of team and personal legacy is starting to merge closer than ever.

"Really, it just really is mind-boggling to know I'm the all-time leading receiver ahead of guys like Stallworth and Swann," he said. "Or that I'm about to hit 10,000 yards in receiving on a team that never really drops back and throws it like some others. I'd like to play long enough to get 1,000 catches, but I'll never put the individual stats over our team goals."

Ward, 33, hasn't embraced all his notoriety of late. In the spring, the NFL put new emphasis for game officials to crack down on blindside blocks around an opposing player's head and shoulders. That's the type of hit Ward used last season to KO Bengals rookie first-round linebacker Keith Rivers with a broken jaw. It was labeled by the media as the "Hines Ward Rule."

"It was an insult," Ward said of the rule.

Ward also believes the rule will result in more devastating injuries.

"If [the NFL] doesn't want you to hit 'em high, then a lot of players are going to have knee injuries because we're going to have to hit 'em low," Ward said. "My intent was not to break [Rivers'] jaw. I just got a great shot in, and it was unfortunate that he was hurt. But if I had hit him low, I could have ended his career."

Ward will try to abide by the rules, but he is still going to play the game the only way he knows, which sets him apart from most receivers.

As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has said, "Hines Ward is a football player first, not a receiver."

Here is what else I learned at Steelers camp, the 10th stop on my training camp bus tour:

  • Michael Vick to the Steelers? Don't count on it. But also don't count on seeing a lot of Ben Roethlisberger in preseason. The team plans to get a good look at Dennis Dixon, the Oregon quarterback who dropped to the fifth round in the 2008 draft because of an ACL injury.

  • With the departure of Nate Washington to the Titans in free agency, the Steelers' No. 3 receiver spot behind Ward and Santonio Holmes is wide open. One sleeper is rookie third-rounder Mike Wallace from Ole Miss. Limas Sweed? Hasn't shown it yet. Veteran Shaun McDonald could steal the job, too.

  • Outside linebacker James Harrison is not only armed with a new contract, he looks armed with bigger muscles and an even bigger attitude.

  • There are no concerns about replacing ILB Larry Foote because Lawrence Timmons, the third-year man from Florida State, should be a pretty dynamic three-down linebacker for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Timmons still has to learn more about being a consistent first- and second-down player, but the Steelers believe he has the same sudden acceleration as All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu.

  • It's difficult to tell whether Rashard Mendenhall is ready to live up to his promise of being one of last year's draft steals at running back. He has recovered from a broken shoulder blade that sidelined him for the final 12 games, but this is the least physical camp Tomlin has had since he took the job three years ago.

  • NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and assistant executive director George Atallah visited the Steelers on Monday.

    Chris Mortensen is a senior NFL analyst for ESPN.