Interview with Georgia Great Hines Ward

<b>Editor's Note:</b> columnist Dean Legge recently conducted an exclusive interview with Hines Ward, former Georgia Bulldog and current Pittsburgh Steeler. Ward gained 3,870 all-purpose yards as a running back, receiver, and kick returner during his career at Georgia from 1994-1997. Ward also passed for 918 yards which doesn't include a 413 yard passing performance in the 1995 Peach Bowl against Virginia. Bowl statistics aren't counted in the official record book.

When asked about role models he only talks about his mother. "She taught me to treat others the way that I wanted to be treated." Ward only knew how to get what he wanted through hard work and sacrifice, something that he learned from his mother first hand. Young Ward raised her son Hines with the help of no one, in a country where she knew no one and did not speak the language. The sacrifices that Young Ward made for her only son are too numerous to name, but clearly Ward appreciates everything that she has done for him.

Hines Ward developed his modesty from his mother, "she taught me to always be humble in everything that you do." Perhaps most known while at Georgia for his ability to play several different positions, Hines Ward was never given the credit due for being the team player that winning teams need. His unselfish style gave him the opportunity to give back to his mother, but only after more struggles while in college.

In his four years at Georgia, Hines Ward played several positions. From quarterback, to running back, to wide receiver, Ward was used whenever and wherever the coaching staff needed him. But Ward found himself in situations sometimes where he felt like he was being used to save jobs.

Pressure was facing the 1995 Georgia team from all fronts. Head Coach Ray Goff was on the hot seat due to lack luster records the previous two seasons. Athletic Director Vince Dooley made it clear that if a turnaround did not occur, then Goff would be gone by season's end. Goff felt the pressure and Ward was the political pawn that was made to suffer because of it.

"There were times at quarterback when I was thrown into the fire", Ward said aggressively. He looked back confused by some of the decisions that Ray Goff made in using Ward's athletic prowess.

In 1995, injuries hit the Georgia Bulldogs like never before. In control of a contest in Knoxville against Tennessee, fate would deal a harsh hand to the Dawgs. Robert Edwards was in the process of scorching the Tennessee defense, but had to leave the game early with a season ending injury in the second quarter. Georgia lost a heart breaker on a last second field goal. The injury would set the tone for the rest of the season.

Later in the year, Georgia lost quarterback Mike Bobo for the remainder of the season on an unfortunate play against Ole Miss. The Rebels made a gutty effort and beat Georgia in Oxford.

In both cases, Georgia could have held on to win the games. After the injuries to both Bobo and Edwards, Ward was asked to take snaps at quarterback to prepare himself should anything happen to Brian Smith, the new number one quarterback. It was nothing new for Ward; he was a high school quarterback under Mike Parris at Forest Park High School.

A native South Carolinian, Smith took great pride in his new starting role against Clemson later that season. Ward practiced the week of the Clemson game with Smith at quarterback. He would come in to relieve Smith if an injury were to occur. But no other preparations were made for Ward concerning the Clemson game, a critical mistake by Goff according to Ward.

"There I was, I am supposed to be one of the best guys on the team, and I am not even on the field. I did not even play in the Clemson game for fear (on the part of Goff) of injury." Ward summed up his thoughts on the way he was treated while Goff was head coach with one critical statement, "It was not really fair to put me in that situation."

The Dawgs pulled of the win at Clemson, but later in the season Ward was forced into the quarterback position because of an injury to Smith.

Ward had been played in three positions in his first two seasons. While a running back, he showed promise against both Alabama and Tennessee. As a quarterback, he lead the Dawgs to a last second win over Georgia Tech and proved a valuable commodity throwing the ball in losses against Virginia and Auburn. What was Ward to play in the 1996 season? Why was he not being used in tough games like the road game at Clemson? Ward was never given answers to these questions during the 1995 season.

After Georgia fired Goff, Ward knew that he would no longer prep before games for quarterback, "They played me at quarterback in 1995, and I played comfortably but I knew that we needed to get the best players on the field at the same time. When Brice Hunter left I knew that I would be playing receiver the rest of my time at Georgia."

But the 1996 season was no easier for Ward than the two seasons before it. Although his production at receiver was up tremendously, the team was struggling with Jim Donnan's new offensive playbook.

Georgia opened up the year with two horrible loses, and the Dawgnation held its collective breath waiting for someone to save them. The first loss came against Southern Mississippi. Costly miscues and a gutty effort by Southern Miss proved too much for Georgia in Jim Donnan's first game.

It got no better the next game as the Dawgs stumbled their way to an 0-2 loss after South Carolina humbled them in Columbia. Instead of moving forward, it seemed as if the Dawgs were moving back. There were no injuries, just turnovers.

The Texas Tech game proved to be a coming out party so-to-speak for Ward. His two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter provided the winning points for Georgia in the game. In spectacular style, Ward took the ball around the left side, waited for his blocks to develop and then flipped his way into the endzone. The play was similar to the one he executed shortly before the half against Auburn in 1995 where he dove into the endzone, flipping his body, with no regard for personal safety, into the air in an attempt to score.

However, Ward's heroics did not jump start the Georgia cause. Even the upset win at Auburn, to which several have labeled the turn around game, was not enough to satisfy Ward, nor his coach at the time. Jim Donnan added before the 1996 Georgia Tech game, "we are still waiting to put a whole game together, we have not done that yet this season."

Ward frustratingly agrees with his former head coach about the 1996 season. "We were all trying too hard. We were trying to do too much. Mike (Bobo) was trying very hard. Learning a new system was too tough. We never played a complete game that season."

The lack of a full game effort by the team was upsetting to the Georgia faithful. Fans were growing tired of the mediocrity. Fans wanted results. They were spoiled by the stretch of great Georgia teams in the 1980s. They wanted more; they wanted a winner. The high standards set by Georgia fans is understandable according to Ward. "We understood were the fans were coming from, people get frustrated. They want to win"

Instead of accepting mediocrity, the 1997 senior class felt that the summer of 1997 was more than important; it was their career at Georgia. They had dominated Tech, spoiled Auburn's season twice, but it seemed that something was missing.

According to Ward, in the summer of 1997 the team committed themselves to turning things around, and they did.

The summer work showed in the fall. After destroying their first four opponents, Ward and the Dawgs suffered a loss in Knoxville to the eventual SEC Champions. But something happened later that month, a sleeping giant awoke that eventually shook Southern as well as national football. Georgia pounded Florida 37-17. The game changed several things nationally and in the conference. With one amazing block by Ward, the game was sealed.

With Georgia driving, up only one touchdown, Bobo pitched the ball to Robert Edwards out of the backfield. Edwards took the ball, followed Ward around the left side and seconds later found himself untouched in the end zone. How did that happen?

When talking about the block, Ward reaches back into his mind and thinks about the play. He laughed and did not really respond. No words are needed. Ward took down at least 6 Florida defenders, ensuring Edwards' safe jog to the endzone.

Ward took pride in blocking. You could see his eyes light up and the joy running through him when he throws a key block. You can almost see the way that he is going to raise his hand to his ear to hear the crowd when he knows that he has a guy right where he wants him. Ward takes pride in his blocking, and it led to the Georgia victory that day.

"We knew that if Robert could get through the line that he could go all the way, he is just that kind of player." And Edwards did just that, exploding through the line and racing into the endzone, ending any hope that Florida had of repeating as national champions. It took Florida three seasons to recover from Ward's block that day, something that he is very proud of to this day.

A lot of receivers take the attitude that they should be getting the ball each play. They worry little about the lost art of blocking. Blocking, according to Ward, is a way of life. "To be a complete receiver you must block. Safeties and corners are going to make tackles." But if Ward can get to them before they can get to his running back, then he has done his job.

To Ward, doing the little things that take persistence and hard work are what makes one great. He learned that in his days battling with All-NFL cornerback, and former Georgia All-American Champ Bailey.

The practice field was a place that Ward took very seriously. "I wanted to compete with Champ. He was getting better and I was too. I am glad to see him doing well, making the Pro-Bowl and stuff like that. But when he was younger I would give him advice and suggestions concerning his play"

But Ward was not willing to allow Bailey to succeed at his expense during competition. "There are no friends on the practice field," Ward added in a stern tone. The attitude was that while even though both were on the same team on Saturdays, he and Champ were trying to better themselves through competition against one another on the practice field during the week.

Competition has always been a part of Ward's life, ever since his mother sacrificed to give him opportunities he has been able to compete in everything, with the exception of one sport.

"I never could play baseball. I wanted to but I just couldn't."

Hines Ward has a broken wrist that does not allow him to swing a bat. The wrist has caused him problems for years.

"I still have to wrap it before I play." adds Ward.

His play at quarterback in 1995 was so outstanding that no one even thought that there might be something wrong with his throwing arm. But there was, Ward, a self-described "momma's boy", noted that he has never had surgery on his broken wrist because he felt that he might get behind or that he would miss time on the practice field. Ward made the decision to play with the pain. And he has been doing that for more than seven years. "I can't even do a push up."

While Ward's wrist might be a problem for him in preparing physically for professional games, he makes no bones about the SEC and its influence on his professional career. "The SEC prepares you for the NFL." He points out that while there are differences athletically, the main difference is more than that. "The only difference is that these are grown men. Pros are getting paid, so you know that they have prepared themselves to be in the NFL."

Asked about the main difference between preparing for a college game compared to the NFL Ward replied, "Film Study. It is very important. I study film for hours. I pick up tendencies and weaknesses of the opposition and I try to pick them apart."

It is apparent that the only weakness in Ward is his broken wrist. "The thing that really stands out about his guy (Ward) when you are exposed to him for a while is his class. He's the type of player you need on your team because of his character," said NFL draft consultant Gil Brant of Ward.

"That's the way he's always been. He's one of the most unselfish people I've ever met. I think that a lot of that is due to his upbringing by him Mom," added Mike Parris, Ward's coach at Forest Park High School.

There is no doubt that Ward's work ethic, attitude, and composure have enabled him to have a successful career at Georgia and at the professional level. It has allowed Hines to give back to his mother in ways that he could not have without her guidance.

He has purchased a home in McDonough for her, and is encouraging her to retire, however, she is not very interested in that right now, "She's worked her whole life, and it is kind of hard for her to stop now, do you know what I mean?"

Instead Young Ward has one last request of her son, "She wants some grandchildren, and we are just going to have to wait on that."

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