If you’ve been to the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp in Latrobe, Pennsylvania then you will know exactly the seen I’m about to describe. In August of 2009 my wife and I stopped at camp with our two kids while on the way to western New York. She and I had been before but this was new territory for the kids.
We were able to get a great spot on the hill with some shade and a perfect view of practice. Once we had done the NFL Experience and ate some food we settled in to plan our deployment to the best place to procure some autographs. To say this skill requires some luck is an understatement because you really don’t know where the players will go following each practice.
Hines Ward has always been one of my favorites simply because of how he plays the game. He’s not the fastest or the biggest but he plays the game hard and leaves it all on the field. My daughter and I were hoping to get his or Ben Roethlisberger’s autograph but getting both would be nothing short of a miracle.
As the numerous pods of fans yelled at Hines he eventually finished his drills with the Juggs machine and started to follow the screams. My daughter and I quickly realized we were in the wrong spot.
Ben was 100 yards to our right and Hines was moving left but would be much closer to us so off we headed in a dead sprint. With hats in hand we slithered our way through the mass of humanity losing sight of each other at the same time. I knew my wife was doing her best to monitor the madhouse but there wasn’t much she could do short of getting a bulldozer to move the crowd.
With my Blackberry in one hand and hat in another, I was taking photos of what I hoped was Hines while reaching my hat through the elbows and hands. Suddenly I felt my hat grabbed and before I knew it the gold Steelers’ hat was back in my hand with Hines Ward’s autograph.
As excited as I was I had to find my daughter. Calling for her as loud as I could to rise above the noisy fans, I discovered her on the other side of pile. While I couldn’t see her I could hear her and knew that she was reaching with all her might towards Hines.
I desperately wanted her to get it especially since I already had it. I was not looking forward to the guilty feelings that would come should only I get the signature. Suddenly as if shot from a cannon, her voice screamed with excitement! “Dad! Dad! I got it! I got it!” she yelled. She emerged from the melee clutching her hat and we immediately ran back over to where mom and brother were waiting.
And there was the signature of Hines Ward on the bill of my daughter’s white and pink Steelers’ hat. Excited doesn’t even begin to explain her current state of being. We had each gotten his signature on our hats and we couldn’t have been happier. Hundreds of people got his autograph that day but we felt like we were the only ones as we headed off to the car. It was like he singled us out when in fact it was nothing more than chance.
Hines Ward was released last night by the Pittsburgh Steelers. That moment in Latrobe was the first thing I thought of too.
The National Football League is a business. I understand this better than most but it doesn’t mean that seeing your favorites leave is without hurt. It hurts badly because you think of all the great moments that they provide you and you know those are nothing but memories now.
Sure it’s possible that they could re-sign him at some point but the pain wouldn’t necessarily be diminished because you knew the time was coming and his skills had greatly decreased. These moments remind us of not only their mortality but of ours as well.
Hines will never be mistaken for Jerry Rice or Randy Moss or Paul Warfield or Don Hutson but he will be in the Hall of Fame one day. While at times he could be polarizing because of comments or salary issues you at least knew where Hines stood. On one August day in 2009 I know exactly where he stood when he provided me with one of my great memories of all time. While I may not get to see him in the black n’ gold #86 anymore, I’ll have something just as important.