The Changing of the Guard: When Players Like Hines Ward Retire


Can you imagine the day when the name, Hines Ward, isn’t heard of during the entire course of a Steelers football game? It’s come close, but not quite.  Even though he had zero catches last week against the Niners, Ward got some face time and mention by  Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock.  But sometime between the end of this season and 2014, that name won’t be heard of during the course of a game – unless it’s only to mention in some graphic great receivers in franchise history.  And that will be a weird day won’t it?

I’m just a hair shy of 32, and since I was 18 years old, Hines Ward has been synonymous with the Pittsburgh Steelers.  That’s nearly 50% of my life (43% to be exact).  For young adults such as myself, Ward quickly became the face of the franchise.  His hard hitting blocking and laughter after getting laid out himself was something any male could respect and admire.  His white flash of a smile melted the hearts of the ladies.  Any time he was up for contract negotiations, I always got nervous and hoped that he would get resigned without any ordeal…. that almost happened.  He’s been the guy you want to end his career as a Steeler – kind of like how Franco should have.  For some strange reason, you kind of (ok maybe only I’m the only one) feel like the team won’t be good anymore when someone like him leaves – even though he’s being slowly phased out.

As the title of the post states, I think we are reaching a time when throughout the entire NFL when we will see a changing of the guard, as it were, for these franchise players.  It’s been rumored that Peyton Manning could be leaving the Colts.

“In terms of if he’s healthy and if he’s ready to play, I see him back with us.  And the draft will be what the draft is. There (are) a lot of situations that could unfold from here. If there’s a great, young quarterback there, we wouldn’t hesitate to take him.” – Jim Irsay, Colts Owner

That’s a pretty clear indication that at some point, they will fully test drive Manning.  And, if he’s not at a point where they think he will be back to his old gun slinging Manning self, then they will draft to begin replacing him.  A first pick, first round draft choice at QB will bring in a big signing (even though those signing rules have changed).  I doubt the Colts will keep Manning as a mentor… that’s a pretty damn expensive mentor.  Manning was in the same draft class as Ward, and has been as much a mainstay for the Colts as Ward has been for the Steelers.  Can you ever imagine the Colts franchise without a Peyton Manning?  Although, we got a big dose of that this season while he’s been shelved.

Even guys like Charles Woodson for the Packers, who has been a franchise player twice (Raiders and Packers) are just about on his way out the door.  He was adored as a Raider and even more so as one of the cornerstones of the Packers defense.  There are a million Woodson jerseys seen on any given weekend here in Milwaukee alone.  I can only imagine how the state of WI will feel when he decides to hang up the cleats.  (Can you imagine the day when Polamalu hangs them up??!!)  Unlike Manning, Woodson and Ward aren’t wallet busting liabilities.  For them to stop playing football for the team they are on now, they will have to hang’em up.  Manning is a different story, tough who’s to say if he can’t play like he used to (and knows it) that he won’t just retire in fear of becoming another Favre.  Better to go out a tragedy through circumstance rather than becoming one on the field.  Oh by the way, Woodson was in the same class as Ward and Manning – are you seeing a trend?

I think franchise players are becoming a thing of the past.  With the modern day NFL and the salary cap, it becomes very difficult for teams to hang on to their beloved superstars.  ‘Franchise’ doesn’t just mean long contracts either.  They encapsulate players who show a loyalty for their team.  They want to not only win, but win for that team.  For some reason, the Steelers are able to hang on to at least a handful at any given time for a large chunk of years.  And it’s those that become the darlings of the franchise.  It’s a unique situation for the Steelers.  And, it’s a tradition that (as long as the Rooney’s are in charge) that will continue on for years to come.  Is it punishment for fans?  To experience players with a longevity of over 10 seasons?  I don’t think so.  It’s an honor, and fortune that we can.

Players that are able to stay with the team for that amount of time reach a certain status.  They truly become part of the Steelers ‘family.’  The champions of Steelers Nation.  The victories become sweeter when they win.  The losses become harder when they fall short.  The criticisms become personal.  We cheer that much harder for them to succeed and as proud as parents when a great achievement is made – whether that’s wining MVP or going to a Pro Bowl.  And we lift the Lombardi right there with them during a Super Bowl victory.  If you think I’m full of it – ask yourself this: how bad do you want to see Hines Ward lift that trophy just one more time before he retires?

Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, and Aaron Smith (probably now will retire).  These are all champions of the franchise.  Can you imagine a Steelers roster without them?  Eventually we will, and that day is coming sooner rather than later for some.  The guard is beginning to change.  The question is: Who will become the new guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they are gone?