"I asked him the other day why he takes so many plays," said newcomer Ryan Clark. "I mean, he's already a superstar receiver. But he said he still has to work, still has to make the team every year.
"When you see a guy like that," Clark continued, "a veteran leader, a Super Bowl MVP, there's no reason why a free agent or a young guy can't work hard every day. That's what leading by example means."
And this is what leading by example means:
• Reporting to camp at 205 pounds, the lowest, Ward said, of his NFL career.
• Staying after practice every day to catch pass after pass after pass out of the jugs machine.
• Changing up and catching pass after pass after pass with one hand, perhaps out of boredom with the two-handed variety.
• Staying after the after-practice workout to monitor – and play cornerback for -- the extra work being put in by rookie receiver Santonio Holmes.
Ward, the Super Bowl MVP, just turned 30. He's a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time team MVP. Wouldn't simply maintaining his level of play be enough for Ward? He laughs at the suggestion.
"Technically, yeah, but for me, that's who I am. I'm very competitive," Ward said. "I hate missing practice. I'll be out there all the time, and when I step on that field I want to get better. I'm not content with winning a Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP. I think there's a lot of room in my game I can always improve on and I won't be satisfied. I want to hit that 10,000-yard mark for my career; I want to be mentioned right there along with Stallworth and Swann; and of course I want to go out and win another Super Bowl.
"I'm not going to lie: The off-season after you win a Super Bowl is a great feeling, so I want to do whatever I can – as a leader, a dependable play-maker, someone who's there for Ben – to make it happen. You know, when he scrambles around he's looking for me to be somewhere to bail him out."
Ward was there for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger three nights ago under the lights at Latrobe Memorial Stadium. Roethlisberger scrambled several times to find an improvising Ward. It's almost as if the two were communicating through helmet phones, but of course those are shut off before the snap. It must be sonar.
"It's just trust," Ward said. "Me, by playing quarterback (in college), I understand coverages, so I understand kind of what Ben's doing, what he's thinking, especially when he's scrambling. Yesterday we hit a couple times on a scramble route. You've got to have that. You've got to have that rapport with a quarterback. And I think Ben's coming into his own in his third year and I've been there for the first two years. We lost Plax (Burress) and we kind of leaned heavily on me to be that guy he can depend on, and I've got to continue doing that."
Ward caught everything Roethlisberger threw up on the Wednesday night that marked the quarterback's best practice yet. But if Roethlisberger's back, so is Ward; not that his decline in production last season meant otherwise.
After averaging 95 catches for 1,124 yards each of the previous four seasons, Ward's production slipped to 69 receptions for 975 yards last season. He did catch 11 touchdown passes, just one away from his career high, and Ward did move into first place on the Steelers' all-time receptions list. He passed John Stallworth last Nov. 13 against Cleveland. Stallworth caught 537 passes for 8,723 yards in his 14 seasons with the team; Ward has 574 receptions for 7,030 yards after eight seasons.
"Even though I didn't have great stats, I had a better year last year than I did the year I caught 112 balls," Ward said. "What I had to do without a guy like Plaxico Burress on the other side, and to still put up double-digit touchdowns and up my yards per catch, I did the little things, converted third downs and made big plays when I had to. So for me, that counts way more than stats.
"Watching these fantasy books," he said with a chuckle, "I see I kind of fell off because I didn't put up a hundred catches like these Arizona guys. I mean, it's good to put up a hundred catches, but if you're losing games you are going to pass all the time."
Couldn't Ward catch 120 passes in Arizona?
"Bahhh," he said. "I want to win. That's what motivates me."