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LATROBE. Pa. – Hines Ward broke into the smile everyone is so accustomed to, laughing as he talked about hearing one of the current Steelers players refer to him as, ‘Coach Ward’ for the first time.
“When they first called me Coach Ward, I had to get used that,” laughed Ward. “I was thinking I am not that old, that far removed. I told my wife the first day I heard Coach Ward I got a big chuckle. I didn’t respond to it at first. I was like are you talking to me, oh, I am the coach. Having the opportunity to come back and give to my organization and help these kids and try to get another Super Bowl is a blessing.”
Ward is working with the Steelers coaching staff during training camp, sharing his knowledge with the young players, while at the same time learning what the coaching profession is all about as it’s something he has been interested in for a long time. He currently works for CNN as a sports contributor and is a regular on HLN’s Morning Express with Robin Meade. And while he loves that, he has a passion for football.
“It’s all different for me,” said Ward. “As players you don’t know what goes into coaching, the game plan, scripting the plays. There is a method to the madness. They want to see progress each and every day and they want to evaluate the players and utilize how to pick the best 53 guys to build a team to make a Super Bowl run. Being behind the scenes is fun, exciting.
“I am teaching guys things I have done my whole life, I love football. I have always loved football. Why not give these guys all of the knowledge of the game that I have. I did that when I was here with younger guys. Why not come back and see what this was like. I didn’t know what went on behind the scenes. This gives me good experience to learn things, from meetings to how to run a practice and everything else.”
Ward is mainly working with the team’s younger players, including second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster , who he said reminds him of, well, him.
“JuJu, words can’t describe,” said Ward. “I see a lot of myself in him. He is a kid that wants to get better every day. The kid is willing to learn. He wants to get better each and every day. He loves to block, loves to get his face dirty, and has great hands. He might not have top end speed, but you don’t need that. If you are a great route runner, can catch the ball and you know the game upstairs.
“I see him having a long and productive career. He is like a big sponge taking it all in. Working with him is exciting for me.”
Ward has been there and done that, so the advice he gives can do nothing but benefit Smith-Schuster and others.
“I just talk about getting better each day,” said Ward. “There is a purpose to training camp. The biggest difference from college to pro is the conditioning, the speed of the game. You have to be in football shape. You can get fatigued fast. Watching Antonio Brown , I thought I worked hard, he puts in two hours after practice. That is what I am working with JuJu on, preparing like that. If you can be in shape for four quarters, catch the ball, run routes, good things will happen.”
Ward, who was a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame Class of 2017, hasn’t just been welcomed back with open arms by the team, but by the fans as well.
“I did it the right way I guess,” said Ward. “The fans have shown me nothing but love. This is something I was intrigued about for so many years. Getting the opportunity to do it and feel the love from the fans. The organization and city has given me so much, what better way than to give my knowledge to the young players. Working with Coach (Richard) Mann, he has so much experience, he has been so helpful in the process.”
There’s also the possibility that the Rangers are merely falling off the tightrope after walking it perilously last season. Much was made about this team’s style overcoming shot metrics that didn’t always lean their way, but with Henrik Lundqvist possibly showing his age and a few key scorers coming up dry so far, maybe this team is merely facing the reality of a so-so roster?