Monday, August 28, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Receiver Hines Ward is one of three players on the Steelers remaining from the draft class of 1998.
They are defending Super Bowl champs now. One, a Super Bowl MVP. Another, one of the most-decorated offensive guards in football. A third, the late bloomer, a starting cornerback who played well enough to hold off two young second-round picks.
Hines Ward, Alan Faneca and Deshea Townsend are at the top of the NFL world as they prepare to help the Steelers defend their championship. Yet, they remember when things weren't going so well in Pittsburgh, when they were so far near the bottom they could not see the top.
They are the '98ers, a trio of players remaining from the draft eight years ago. Two are 30 years old, one is closing in on it. They joined the team when it was on a roll, having barely missed a Super Bowl visit three months before they were drafted. Bill Cowher had coached each of his first six Steelers teams into the playoffs, tying a coaching record held by Hall of Famer Paul Brown. Three of those teams reached an AFC championship game, and one a Super Bowl.
There was no reason to believe it would ever stop.
"You had to think, 'Hey, we're coming to a good situation,' " Townsend said. "You know you're going to a good organization, the championships they've won, Mr. Rooney and how they run their organization."
But in the '98ers' rookie year, the Steelers lost their final five games and finished 7-9. Then things turned poorly. They lost seven of their final eight in 1999 and plummeted to 6-10. Tom Donahoe, the director of football operations and the man who drafted them, was fired after that season. In minicamp that June, an ugly brawl broke out in their locker room. They lost their first three games of 2000 and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year.
Townsend and Ward, roommates, looked at each other and wondered if they hadn't jinxed the team that drafted them.
"Me and Hines said, 'Man, we must be the reason we're losing,' " Townsend said.
Chuck Noll often noted that steel must go through fire to be strengthened, and the heat was relentless on the Steelers, particularly for the '98ers, who celebrated going to such a successful organization only to wonder what had happened after their first three years.
Looking back now, from atop the perch that includes a 15-1 2004 season and the franchise's first Super Bowl victory in 26 years, one thing the '98ers learned early in their NFL careers is that nothing can be taken for granted.
"I think you appreciate it more when you've been there in the bad times," Faneca said.