For 14 years, Hines Ward has taken a beating
, sacrificing his body by willingly running crossing routes patrolled by heavy-hitting safeties and head-hunting linebackers.
Every time, it seemed, he pulled himself up with that familiar, in-your-face smile still intact.
But age and experience has left his battle-weary body vulnerable. He limped off with an ankle injury earlier this season against Arizona and was KO'd by Baltimore's Ray Lewis on a helmet-to-helmet blow that left him concussed.
At 35, Ward has played through the headaches and pain. But the usually reliable and durable wide receiver has spent much of the past three games watching second-year receiver Antonio Brown transition effortlessly into the starting role.
Ward insisted Thursday that he's fit and healthy as the Steelers prepare to play St. Louis on Saturday at Heinz Field.
But as he sits just nine catches from becoming the eighth receiver in NFL history with 1,000 career receptions, he also faces the possibility that this could be his last game as a Steeler at Heinz Field — if the team doesn't earn a home playoff game.
"I would love to get it, but I'm not thinking about any records," he said. "If not, I'm not going to retire any time soon. I'll play until the wheels fall off.
"I feel like the move (less playing time) isn't any indication that I've fallen off or anything. When I was out there, I was open."
Ward, who had at least one reception in 186 consecutive games, was shut out in the Steelers' 20-3 loss to San Francisco. Three times this season, he has been held to one reception. He was on the field for just nine snaps against the 49ers.
"I have no idea what's going on," Ward said. "You have to ask the coaching staff. For me, the coaches make the decisions. I just live by them. No one has said anything to me or explain the reasons why. It's not my job to question, and they aren't obligated or have to explain.
"It's a tough enough business, and it's hard to make personnel changes. So be it. It's not going to change the way I play."
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians wouldn't speculate on Ward's breaking the record or future with the team.
"No one's got a crystal ball, no one knows what the future brings,'' Arians said. "I don't even want to think about him not being around. We'd miss him way too much. When those times come, they'll come. But it's not this week."
It might be inconceivable to imagine for teammates and fans alike, but suddenly, there are far more questions than answers about Ward's future.
There's no doubt that Brown and Mike Wallace have become Roethlisberger's primary targets. Roethlisberger went their way a combined 22 times and threw six times to Jerricho Cotchery against San Francisco, but Ward got nary a look his way.
Cotchery, though, also warns observers to ignore the numbers.
"As a player, you have to live with the coaches' decisions," said Cotchery, who had five catches against the 49ers. "I remember coming in here last year in the AFC Championship Game (as a Jets player) and seeing him catch a touchdown pass.
"At the end of the day, everyone in this locker room knows what Hines is capable of come playoff time. When you're building something, you let young guys mature to make sure they're ready to go."
Nose tackle Casey Hampton isn't worried. He figures, with the playoffs around the corner, Ward will again be a focal point of an offense that has scored only 10 points in the past six quarters.
"I always say when it gets cold, you don't want any other receiver out there but Hines," Hampton said. "The other guys are great receivers, but when you think about Hines' history, you know what he can do."
Ward has spent much of this season mentoring the Steelers' young receivers. Now, he's ready to show them a few postseason tricks.
"He's definitely been a great mentor, definitely taught me, Antonio and Mike a lot of things," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "Just teaching me how to take care of my body, how to be a great route runner and, in general, how to be a good pro. I look up to the guy.
"If Hines does decide to retire, I'm happy for him. I hope that he gets the 1,000-catch mark, and I hope that we can send him out of here Super Bowl champs. That would be beautiful if he decides to retire."
For Ward, it's out of the question. Instead, he's looking toward the playoffs and a chance to prove he's still got it.
"It's a new ballgame in the playoffs," said Ward, whose five 100-yard playoff receiving games is fifth best all-time. "It's what I try to tell the young guys: Everybody turns it up a notch in the playoffs.
"I want to be that guy Ben can rely on come playoff time."