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Hitting career milestone in Pittsburgh extra sweet for Ward

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Mark Duncan/AP
On Sunday, Hines Ward became the eighth player in NFL history to achieve 1,000 catches in his career.

CLEVELAND -- Everything that is today's prototype wide receiver, Hines Ward is not.

Someday, these physically overwhelming talents built like shooting guards (A.J. Green) and blue-liners (Julio Jones) will make what the Steelers great accomplished in a snowy finale to the 2011 regular season look irrelevant.

But that day was not Sunday. Ward does have bigger goals in mind for this year, namely taking the long, wild-card road to a ring the way he and his team did in 2005, and further cementing the legacy of this era's Steelers. Yet, at 35, he knows better than not appreciate mileposts like the one he reached against the Browns, with the 1,000th catch of his illustrious career.

"Deion (Sanders) once told me, 'Play 'til the wheels fall off, because you'll never get this experience, this opportunity back again'," Ward told me, putting diamond studs into his ears before boarding the bus for the two-hour ride home. "The camaraderie with the guys, the special relationships that you build, the younger guys, the older guys, it's just a special thing. To go into that elite club, that 1,000-catch class, it's amazing, considering third-round pick, not big, not fast, predominantly run-oriented team, and I hear I am among those guys. So it's a special moment."

If this is the last Steelers team that Ward is a part of -- and he was very clear with me in saying, "I haven't thought about it" -- it does reflect its gritty leader. This isn't the Pittsburgh of 2010 or 2008, sailing into the playoffs with a bye and its health intact. Ward is just one in a laundry list of cornerstones (Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, James Farrior, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley) who've battled through injury. Another one went down Sunday night, in Rashard Mendenhall, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Monday the running back suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Yet with whispers rampant in September and October that Father Time was coming to collect, Pittsburgh has scratched out 12 wins and looks like as good a bet as anyone in the AFC bracket, even as a No. 5 seed, to make it back to Indianapolis.

Ward isn't the reason why this time around. His 46 catches, 381 yards and two touchdowns are the lowest season totals he's had since his rookie year of 1998. He's never averaged less than the 8.3-yards-per-catch he's posted this season. He had just one catch of more than 20 yards, 13 fewer than he put up in 2010.

But the lack of catches and yards and touchdowns and opportunities are, in part, because of the work he's done. Ward is probably the fourth-best receiver on his own team right now, and that's in large part due to how he helped bring along guys like Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.

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Last week, Wallace told me, "He's like a big brother to me. He taught me how to be a pro, got me involved in the community. And with football, there are many different things he helped on." And Brown's words were close to identical: "This guy has been a tremendous help to us, just showing us how to be a pro, how to go about our business, showing us the little things, all the insights of the game. To be out there with him, to see him get that milestone, it's amazing. Something that I'm proud of."

Ward had an interesting road to get here, starting as a converted quarterback at Georgia, coming to the NFL as a bit of a project, and working his way into a big-time role with the Steelers in his second season. Similarly, Wallace (a third-round pick) broke out in 2010, his second NFL season, and Brown (a sixth-round pick) won Team MVP honors this year in his second season. Both Wallace and Brown went over 1,100 yards this year.

The strength at that position is a primary reason why the Steelers are a serious threat in January. And while Ward won't talk about his own future, it's something the other guys have whispered about.

"People ask about it, so you think about it," Wallace said. "I'm not sure this is actually gonna be his last. I certainly hope it's not. But I'd love to send him out on high note."

Brown built on that point, saying, "He represents what the program is about. Toughness. Physicalness. Unselfishness. Just everything that this organization is, that's Hines Ward."

I asked Ward if he thinks this is a Super Bowl team, and he responded, "I think so. We've got the firepower."

But however this run ends, what's important to Ward is that it's ending where it should, in Pittsburgh. Those thousand catches are nice, and he became just the eighth guy to get there. That they all came in one uniform makes it special.

"I just have Mr. Rooney to thank for giving me the opportunity to be a Steeler for life, and I'm ecstatic about it," Ward said. "For me, I wouldn't want to play for any other organization. And to surpass 12,000 yards and 1,000 catches, and play my whole career here, it's a great feat for me. I'm honored and happy and very thankful."

But the best part for Ward is the team's loyalty has given him another shot at the ultimate prize. "Three rings would be awesome," he said.

After all, few guys know better than Ward that Super Bowl titles is how you're judged in Pittsburgh. And he also is more aware than most that even a group that hasn't always looked the part is more than capable of getting the job done.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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