The Blair County Sports Hall of Fame enjoyed its largest banquet crowd ever over the weekend, thanks in large part to the keynote speaker: the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hines Ward.
The self-proclaimed fan of fashion looked like a rock star — sparkling in his custom-made tuxedo, diamond stud earnings and trademark killer smile.
He entertained the crowd with stories about Bill Cowher’s spirit (and spit) and his extensive experiences in the NFL. However, his message was much more than quips and anecdotes.
The MVP of Super Bowl XL told his story: born the son of an African-American G.I. who served during the Korean War, he was raised by his Korean mother in Clayton County, Ga. As a young boy of mixed race, Ward said he felt like he didn’t belong anywhere, separated by background from white children, Asian children and African-American children.
That is until he realized his talent on the athletic field, and learned that sport is the great equalizer: box scores and stat sheets don’t include a column for race, color, creed or socio-economic status. To be successful and accepted in athletics takes just two things: ability and opportunity. Ward had natural ability, and fortunately, a friend’s father, who paid for him to play baseball as a boy, providing him with the priceless opportunity to excel. Hines’ own determination and dedication took him the rest of the way.
Ward may be the ultimate American success story. He learned his work ethic from his immigrant mother who toiled in multiple jobs to support their small family. She would leave plates of food for her young son to heat up for breakfast and dinner, often not seeing him until late at night due to her demanding work hours. Nevertheless, she still found time to discipline her son, and he credits her with keeping him on the straight and narrow.
Ward says he has little contact with his father, which makes him value even more the relationship he has with his own son. That may be why he treasures the photos of himself celebrating with Jaden at the Super Bowl far more than his championship ring. He wants Jaden to look back at that time and be proud of his dad.
At 6-foot-0, this unlikely superstar is far from the NFL’s tallest receiver, but there are few hearts bigger in all of sports. Ward has overcome his start in life to become one of the greatest players in the history of the University of Georgia and the Steelers, both on and off the football field.
He has used his international fame to prompt change in South Korea, creating the Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation with a $1 million donation, supporting mixed-race children who face discrimination even today.
On a night when so many deserving local athletes were honored with induction into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame, Ward provided an inspirational address equal to their accomplishments.
Kellie Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column runs on Tuesdays.