“I just wouldn’t feel right,” Ward said.
So rather than play for a 15th season – and his first outside the Steel City – a tearful Ward opted to retire Tuesday and secure a legacy unmatched in the franchise’s long history.
“I can say I’m a Steeler for life and that’s the bottom line, that’s all I’ve really ever wanted,” Ward said.
Ward holds every significant franchise receiving record, including receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. His 1,000 career catches rank eighth all time and he is one of two players with at least 1,000 receptions and two Super Bowl rings.
The decision comes three weeks after the 36-year-old was released by the Steelers in a salary cap maneuver. Ward says he was contacted by several clubs but never had any formal discussions. He insists there are no hard feelings for his release, understanding that football is a business. As if to prove the point, Ward embraced Steelers owner Art Rooney II after stepping away from the podium following the announcement.
The former third-round pick out of Georgia was due to make $4 million next season, an expensive option for a player whose role diminished significantly in 2011 when he finished with 46 receptions, the fewest since his rookie season in 1998. He embraced his role as mentor to Pro Bowlers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.
Ward’s breakout season came in 2001 when he set a franchise record with 94 receptions then obliterated that mark in 2002 when he finished with 112 catches.
He made four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2001-2004 and seemed to get better as he aged. He was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2006 Super Bowl after catching five passes for 123 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 21-10 victory over Seattle, the franchise’s first championship in 26 years. The Steelers added a second title in 2009 to give them six, more than any other team in the league.
After his release, Ward insisted could still contribute. He still does.
“I feel like I have a few more good years in me left, Ward said. “I would love nothing more to get back to the Super Bowl.”
He wasn’t willing to do it, however, outside Pittsburgh.
“I want to go down as one of the greats to wear the black-and-gold and that’s how it should end,” Ward said.