The assumption is that Hines Ward probably has some form of brain damage. How could he not? He played through concussions for 14 seasons, perfecting the previously-abandoned position of “blocking wide receiver” by launching himself headlong into the maws of bigger defensive backs and linebackers. He killed them with a smile. No one loved the mundane, day-to-day violence of football more than Ward. Sure, he was on SportsCenter plenty. Jerry Rice is the only other player in NFL history with 1,000 catches and two Super Bowl rings. But Ward got a special kind of thrill from catching some lughead, low-football-IQ linebacker sleeping on a routine sweep, sneaking up from his blindspot and turning his life upside down.
Today, it all ends. The franchise that Ward sacrificed years of his post-career lucidity for decided to not renew his contract this off-season. Ward is undoubtedly headed for the broadcast studio, where the house lights will shine down on his unbelievable head and he’ll be typecast as a mouthpiece for the dying art of smash-mouth football. When a young receiver grows alligator arms on a shallow crossing route over the middle, Ward will be there to feign indignation. He will serve as that little voice inside our heads—the one that reads the obits of the NFL’s departed and how they roamed the Earth like ghosts and slept in train stations, how they cried in single-bed motel rooms and couldn’t remember what they ate for breakfast, how the last thing they saw was the mouth of a shotgun or their own dangling feet—that little voice that says this is what they signed up for.
Ward was the concussion era’s Archie Bunker, the closest we ever came to having a pro-head-trauma advocate. He routinely lied to sideline physicians about “neck injuries” to escape the NFL’s ever-intensifying concussion protocols, and even criticized his own teammates for acknowledging head injuries. It’s one thing to turn yourself into willing cannon fodder, but another thing entirely to project your loyalties onto others. When Steelers quarterback/depraved human Ben Roethlisberger was dealing with post-concussion symptoms in 2009, Ward went on national television and told Bob Costas’ haircut that Roethlisberger should have lied to doctors to get clearance to play in the bi-annual primetime genocide against the division-rival Baltimore Ravens.
Ward’s indignation came months before Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry fell out of the back of a moving truck during a Terminator-style dispute with his girlfriend. The autopsy revealed that Henry’s 26-year-old brain was already ink-stained with signs of dementia. Previously, the bad brains all belonged to old men, but with the demise of Henry, a slight, troubled finesse wideout, the game done changed. Before, it was easy to see how Ward could put money, power, and glory on one side of the ledger and his 70-year-old self on the other. Of course, he played through brain pain, and of course he’d want his quarterback to do the same. But Ward didn’t come any closer to enlightenment as his career started to fade and his neurons began to misfire.
After sustaining his first concussion of 2011 against the New England Patriots, Ward demanded to be let back out onto the field, invoking the rare double-whammy of the old bell-ringer standby and the gridiron party anthem “You Gotta Fight For Your Right (To Get Brain Damage).”
"It's football. You get your bell rung," he said at the time. "It's my body. I feel like if I want to go back out there, I feel like I should have the right.”
After sustaining his second concussion against the Ravens just weeks later, something much more troubling happened. Just a few catches away from the 1,000 milestone, Ward had his helmet retrofitted with military-grade Kevlar in order to take the field. Aspirin for a brain tumor.
On New Year’s he reached 1,000 receptions on a pitiful shovel pass in a meaningless game in Cleveland. Then he went back to the sidelines, smiling. For the first time ever, the grin seemed half-hearted, and it faded before he even reached his waiting teammates.
Ward looked like a man who knew what was coming. He’d long been the hunter, and that wager turned a slow, undersized, half-Asian former quarterback into an NFL legend. But now Ward has to face the shadows that came for his predecessors. No one to hit. No one to lie to. Just studio lights and the voice inside his head.
There is a whole legion of people—from the light-beer-status-conscious bro-scape of normal America to the footballing peers who voted Ward the dirtiest man in the NFL—who can’t wait to see the first signs of the inevitable, slow rusting of Ward’s cognition. Ward was so singularly adept at infuriating and intimidating opponents because he claimed that he knew the pain was coming, and that he didn’t give a fuck. I wonder now if he really meant it.