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PITTSBURGH — Hines Ward’s constant, ear-to-ear smile tucked behind a black facemask has been a lasting image for Pittsburgh Steelers fans the past 14 seasons.
They won’t see it again.
A four-time Pro Bowl selection, who holds franchise records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, Ward, 35, will be released by the organization that drafted him back in 1998.
“We had a conversation today with Hines Ward and informed him that we plan to release him of his contract prior to the start of the 2012 NFL calendar year,” Steelers President Art Rooney II said in a statement on the team’s website Wednesday. “Hines has been an integral part of our success since we drafted him in 1998, and we will forever be grateful for what he has helped us achieve.”
A four-time Pro Bowl selection, Ward will finish his Steelers career with 1,000 catches, 12,083 yards and 85 receiving touchdowns. He helped Pittsburgh to three AFC championships, and two Super Bowl titles.
A third-round pick out of Georgia, Ward was the MVP of the Super Bowl in 2006 after leading the Steelers to a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. He posted a game-high 123 receiving yards on five receptions with one touchdown.
“He has meant so much to this organization, both on and off the field,” Rooney said, “and we appreciate his efforts over the past 14 years.”
Last season, Ward’s role diminished in the Steelers offense, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger developed stronger relationships with Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Both receivers topped 1,100 yards receiving and combined for 10 touchdowns, while Ward had just 46 catches for 381 yards and two scores. It was the worst reception total since his rookie year (15).
Ward, though, had six 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and just missed two more, posting 975 in both 2005-06 and 2006-07. He also returned eight kicks for 210 yards.
“Hines’ accomplishments are numerous,” Rooney said, “and he will always be thought of as one of the all-time great Steelers.
“We wish him nothing but the best.”
In his last game as a Steeler, a 29-23 postseason loss to the Denver Broncos on Jan. 8, Ward did not record a catch.