The Times…They are a Changing

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Knowing when to pull the plug on a career is not easy. Whether a doctor, lawyer, pastor, priest or “waste disposal technician,” all occupations carry with them the same general comcerns in determining when to say when.

There are so many mitigating circumstances that revolve around the decision-making process which accompany the acknowledgement that “the time has come,” they can fog the clearest perspective on which course of action to take. It’s no wonder so many miss the moment.

For a professional athlete, it can be even harder because it plays out in front of so many, and so many get to voice their opinions with a thumbs up, or thumbs down as if they had a seat at the old Coliseum in Rome, voting on the life expectancy of a fallen gladiator.

For so many of us that have laid it out on the field over a number of years, it’s hard to see the trees from the forest when you’re contemplating retirement. When you factor into the equation for the less grounded players that are dealing with a complete break in reality (i’m not mentioning names here but you know who they are) you can see where the temptation to deny the changes in your game or body, obvious to everybody else, are profound.

Let’s face it, pro football is such a popular pastime and strokes your ego during one’s employment years. And therefore your ego, always a temperamental soul and never quite lacking in the NFL, comes into play far more than the normal desire to slow down and get a nice watch.

I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again. Not many of us are afforded a graceful exit from the NFL. Most of us land with a sizeable thump, rather than applause.

Today is not one of those days, however. Today is a day to celebrate all that we love in pro sports and pay homage to the proper timing of a career well played out. And one that was almost missed.

Hines Ward retired as a Steeler, as a member of the Black n Gold brotherhood in perpetuity, and a man who moved into the rarified air of legends. A player who raised the bar higher than it had been raised already (which all of Steelers Nation know was substantial) and will remain the gold standard when assaying the careers of wide receivers who follow in his foot steps.

However you can’t write the Hines story if you merely look at the statistics. It’s not just what Hines did, but how he did it. In an era when we saw the evolution of the wide receiver ascend to “Diva” status, Hines trucked along as a last remnant of the old-school, in direct contrast to his many non-blocking, all-about-me, “Just throw me the ____ ball” contemporaries in the NFL.

There’s not too many wideouts who can lay claim to being “tougher than woodpecker lips,” as Tunch Ilkin describes Hines. Nor are there many, sadly, that would even value that sort of praise in today’s NFL. The game has been and always will be about changing with the times and the culture. In the modern era, the individual parts are greater than the whole in oh so many teams throughout the NFL.

I’m going to miss Hines. I’m going to miss the smile he flashed when he dished out a serious dose of de-celeration trauma to Ed Reed on a block at Heinz Field, and miss the smile that still glowed when he got torched on a catch in the desert of Arizona. That smile was infectious and spread as when he handed off yet another touchdown reception to yet another smiling fan wearing a Hines jersey in the endzone seats. It was all the same to him.

Nobody was a more truthful guy or simply just himself in front of the cameras than Hines. His motto was “Keeping it real,” and he kept it real every time he took to the field or the microphone. Most of us mortals don’t have the courage to be real with our own friends, let alone Steelers Nation and the public.

Hines had been insisting that there was a little more left to his game and his body. Clarity apparently has taken root, and Hines has seen the light of truth.

Yet i wouldn’t have bet against him had he pursued further in his desire to continue his career. After watching Hines win “Dancing with the Stars,” and seen with my own eyes the guy who couldn’t dance after a touchdown catch to save his life do those dances in front of millions, how could you ever say “he couldn’t.”

No, the driving force behind the tremendous success story that is Hines Ward is his toughness, unbelieveable competitiveness and eternal desire to excel and prove others wrong.

When others said no, Hines said yes. He started off on the special teams, became reknown for his blocking and then moved on into hi-light reel status with his pass-catching. One of the last links in the progression of old-school to new-school offenses of years gone by.

Enjoy the memories Pittsburgh, we’re not likely to see his kind for…ever?

Who then, but Bob Dylan could sing it better?

“The times…they are a changing”

P.S. Even Dylan had to change with the times and put down the acoustic and pick up the electric…