Not only was he a good football player, he had the heart of a lion. He was beloved in the city; a flat-out fan favorite. And then he held out with a year remaining on his contract and things turned ugly. He became known as the selfish guy, who -- instead of reporting to camp and helping his team come together for an expected run at a title -- was only worried about how much money he could squeeze from the organization.
Duce Staley finally did report to the Philadelphia Eagles to end a 26-day holdout. But a year later, he was gone, and all the principals involved, fans included, moved on. Staley knows exactly what Hines Ward is going through.
"I was definitely in a similar situation," Staley said. "I was just laughing about it last night."
It's easy to laugh now, but at the time – the 2003 pre-season -- Staley felt the world crashing down around him. He used to be known as a winner in Philadelphia, but the term changed not-so-subtly to "whiner". ESPN once ran a nifty little scoreboard that compared all the players who were in camp with all of the players who weren't.
"All the other players, however many it was, on every team were in camp except Duce Staley," he said. "That made me feel bad, worse than anything."
At 28, Staley was coming off his best pro season and he wanted compensated, not only for future years but for being underpaid in the past. But then he had to crawl back to camp without an extension. Staley played out the year as the second-teamer and then was gone, although he did shine in the playoffs.
Remember the Steelers' last playoff game? You can count on one finger the number of Steelers who played at a championship level, and still Ward, like Staley before him, cannot make a case for past considerations.
"I definitely know what he's going through," said Staley, who was the subject of resentment even after returning. He doesn't expect Ward will see a similar fate.
"No. He's well loved," Staley said. "You can't even measure the time, commitment and work he's put in on the field. You can't even measure it. You can't measure his heart; you can't measure his determination. He's a warrior."
But didn't that also describe Staley two years ago?
"Well, there were bad feelings within the organization," he said. "You have to understand, it's a tug of war on both sides. You have to understand it's a business, but you've got to have your beliefs, and the team will have their beliefs. That's what I learned. I learned that regardless of the fact, conversation with the team is going to be a little hostile. But that's the road I chose and I had to deal with it.
"I want him in camp. I support him to the fullest. He can call me up and we'll talk. If he needs some advice he can definitely call me, but Hines is a smart guy and Hines deserves everything he wants; without a doubt he deserves it. I just know the road. I know what comes along with it. I know what names you'll be called. I know the high expectations coming into the year, what will be expected. But I know Hines is a man. He's got to stick to his guns."
With Ward out, Staley becomes the Steelers' top offensive playmaker, and he feels he's up to the task.
Last year Staley was off to the best start of his career with 707 yards (4.7 per carry) in seven games before injuring his hamstring against the New England Patriots. He said after the game it was only a bruise from being punched, but he had only 41 carries the rest of the regular season.
"The hamstring's feeling real good," he said. "I think it's gotten stronger over the off-season."
Does he still believe he was punched?
"Actually, I really do still think that and I think the film didn't show it because there's a lot of stuff goes on under the pile that you don't see."
Staley is now 30, the bewitching hour for running backs, so he's not allowing himself to look past the next practice.
"I'm just taking it one day at a time," he said. "I know I'm coming off a big injury; I know before the injury I was having a great year. You just gotta take it one day at a time. I don't have any high expectations other than finishing the season. I know if I finish the season and I'm healthy throughout the season, I know what I can do."
Holdouts can be nasty
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