DETROIT - Hines Ward has always played with a couple of imposing shadows lurking in the background. Everything the Pittsburgh Steelers' receiver accomplished was always followed with the mention of Pittsburgh Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, who both won Super Bowls.
Last night in Super Bowl XL, Ward joined them in the champions club. His five receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown earned Ward the Super Bowl MVP award. The championship ring will be on its way soon.
"For me to have my name mentioned with guys like that - guys who played in the Super Bowl and helped bring championships to Pittsburgh - I don't have the words to describe how great it feels," Ward said.
"I want to be considered one of the greats. To be named MVP, it's a great honor, but I still feel like I left some plays out on the field. I could have had an even better day. But it's still a great honor, because I helped contribute to this team's win. As a football player you want to go out and contribute some way, somehow for a victory, and I know today I helped do that."
Ward bailed the Steelers out and helped set up their first touchdown that came with about two minutes left in the first half. On a third-and-28 from the 40, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scrambled out of the pocket, ran to the Seattle sideline, then threw a dart diagonally across the field to Ward, who had improvised his route and broken free inside the 5.
Ward's catch gave Pittsburgh a first-and-goal, and Roethlisberger plowed in for the score three plays later, giving the Steelers a 7-3 advantage.
Midway through the fourth quarter, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El took a pitch from running back Willie Parker, then tossed a 43-yard scoring pass to Ward, who had slipped behind the Seattle defense. That opened the Steelers lead to 21-10, and gave Ward his MVP award.
"Antwaan threw a heck of a ball, and really, that sealed the game for us," Ward said. "It gave us momentum and got our crowd back into it. We had it in our bag of tricks. Antwaan threw it where I could get it, and I made a play on it."
Ward, 29 and a veteran of eight pro seasons, has had plenty of honors come his way. He has been in the Pro Bowl four times, and this past summer he received a new five-year contract worth $27.5 million, the richest deal in Steelers' history, including a franchise-record signing bonus of $9 million.
"That is all fine, but the thing I really wanted was to win a Super Bowl," Ward said. "This tops everything else."
COWHER CRIES: Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher finally won the big one, in his second try. He had lost four AFC championship games - all at home - and one Super Bowl. Given the hardest road possible this year, Cowher's Steelers became the first team in NFL history to win three road playoff games and then take the Super Bowl. Afterward, Cowher cried on the sideline. Later, he slapped hands with his players and raised his fist in triumph. He is the first Pittsburgh coach other than Chuck Noll to lug home a Lombardi Trophy. Ironically, owner Dan Rooney hired both Noll - a four-time Super Bowl winner - and Cowher. They are the only two coaches the Steelers' organization has had in the last 37 years. "This is a special group of players, these guys are so deserving - I couldn't be more happy for Mr. Rooney, the players, the coaches and the city," Cowher said.
FAMILIAR TURF: The playing field that Jerome Bettis and Shaun Alexander bounced off of gets its cushion from a mix that includes the recycled rubber from recalled Firestone tires. The artificial turf is cushioned with sand and small pieces of rubber. It is made by the Canadian based FieldTurf company, and yesterday was the first Super Bowl played on the surface. The turf was also installed in the Pontiac Silverdome where the Lions used to play, and where the Steelers conducted their practices in preparation for the game. FieldTurf is in place at the Lions' practice facility in Allen Park, where the Seahawks worked out this past week. The Steelers' practice facility in Pittsburgh and the Seahawks' stadium and practice facility in Seattle are also using FieldTurf.
JOB HUNT: The Oakland Raiders plan to interview Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt in the coming days for their coaching vacancy. Oakland has been without a head coach for more than a month since Norv Turner was fired Jan. 3, and the new coach will need time to set his staff and be involved in planning the offseason workout program. Whisenhunt would follow Al Saunders, James Lofton and Rod Marinelli to formally interview with the Raiders. Oakland also held an informal talk with former St. Louis coach Mike Martz, although nothing came of that meeting. Whisenhunt is in his ninth season as an NFL coach and second in charge of Pittsburgh's offense after working the previous three years as the team's tight ends coach.
LEYLAND SIGHTING: The Detroit Tigers' pitchers and catchers report for spring training two weeks from today in Lakeland, Fla. Perrysburg native Jim Leyland, the team's new manager, was spotted at the Super Bowl with his teenage son, Patrick. Leyland was wearing an assortment of Steelers clothing. No big surprise there because Leyland still lives in Pittsburgh and is a close friend of coach Bill Cowher.
"We play golf together and go to lunch," Leyland said. "He hits it far and doesn't know where in the world it's going. I hit it short and don't know where in the world it's going. We have a lot in common. He's an intense guy, and so am I."
LIONS FEVER: Backup quarterback Charlie Batch was one of six former Lions who suited up for the Steelers in the Super Bowl. The others were center Jeff Hartings, cornerback Chidi Iwuoma, linebacker Clint Kriewaldt, defensive end Travis Kirschke and offensive tackle Barrett Brooks. Batch, who played at Eastern Michigan, spent his first four seasons in the NFL with the lowly Lions and played his home games at the very spot where the Steelers practiced all week.
"I basically grew up here," he said. "I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but spent nine years here. You have that genuine bond. You have friends and family in both places."
Batch started 46 games for Detroit, posting a 19-27 record. After going 0-9 in the 2001 season, he was released. He was signed by the Steelers as a free agent in June, 2002. Until this season, he had attempted just eight passes in three years. Batch won his only start of 2005 against Green Bay when he replaced an injured Ben Roethlisberger, but completed just 23 of 36 passes for 246 yards for the season.
WASHINGTON REPORT: Former Scott High standout Nate Washington, whose success as a wide receiver at Tiffin University earned him a free agent tryout and eventually a job with the Steelers, played yesterday when Pittsburgh was in its four-receiver sets, but caught no passes.