Heading into 2005, the Pittsburgh Steelers were poised to make a championship run. Coming off a franchise record 15-1 season in which the Steelers reached the AFC Championship, they were returning 8 Pro Bowlers, the #1 ranked defense, Rookie of the Year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Jerome Bettis had agreed to return for one more season.
They had the talent, chemistry, and drive that wins Super Bowls. However, they faced an issue with the potential to unravel the team before they even got started – the holdout of Hines Ward.
Ward signed a 4-year, $9.5M extension in 2001 that he proved more than worthy of as he set a franchise record with 94 receptions and over the next 4 seasons which was on par with the top WRs in the NFL:
- 381 receptions
- 4499 yards
- 30 TDs
- 4 consecutive Pro Bowls
The case could be made, and in fact was made, that Ward had out-performed his contract. Ward had one year remaining on his deal that would see him due $1.6M in 2005. While Ward was not seeking a deal like Marvin Harrison ($67M) or Terrell Owens ($49M) signed, at the time he felt undervalued and would not report to camp without a new deal.
Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert had a policy of not negotiating with players who were not in camp and the two sides were at an impasse for 15 days. Then Dan Rooney decided to step in with a phone call to Bettis. Both understood the importance of Ward to the team and how entrenched Ward was in his position, so Rooney proposed a unique solution.
Dan Rooney; per My 75 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL:
“Here’s what I’d like you to do. Get Hines and bring him over to the Latrobe Airport. We’ll meet in the back room. Nobody will know we’re there.” This was not an official negotiation—no agents or management, other than me. Everyone else was at camp, or back in Pittsburgh.
Jerome persuaded Hines to come, and I talked to them both. To Hines I said, “Look, you mean everything to us. We want to get this done.”
He said, “Well, I need to get what I deserve.” I said, “You’ll get what you should get. You might not be one hundred percent happy with it, but you’re going to get what’s right.”
He said, “You’ve always been fair.”
We understood one another and left with a handshake.
I went back to Art and Kevin Colbert and told them, “You go talk to him and he’ll sign. He wants to be here.”
After Mr. Rooney passed away, Ward wrote a story for the Players Tribune , and one of the topics he discussed was what happened once his hold out ended. A conversation after the fact always stuck with Ward.
Probably my favorite memory of Mr. Rooney dates back to early 2006. Six months before I had held out from the first few weeks of training camp in Latrobe, and when I reported I apologized to him for any negative attention I might have brought on the team by holding out. Mr. Rooney was just so wonderful about the whole thing. “It’s over with now, Hines,” he said. “Forget about it. Just go out and help us win the Super Bowl.” When we beat the Seahawks to win our fifth Lombardi Trophy, I was named Super Bowl MVP. I still remember seeing him on the field afterward and just sprinting up to him and giving him a big ol’ hug while the confetti was flying everywhere. It was a moment of pure joy for both of us, and I’ll never forget it.
Ward reported to camp and three weeks later agreed to a 4-year $25M extension. Hines once again proved his worth as he won Super Bowl XL MVP and helped the Steelers win their 5th Lombardi Trophy. After the passing of Dan Rooney in 2017, Ward would admit that his greatest regret was holding out in 2005 – which only reinforced the integrity and class that only a Dan Rooney promise stands for.
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