PITTSBURGH - In a perfect world it wouldn't have ended this way.
Hines Ward's spectacular career with the Pittsburgh Steelers would have ended with a celebratory news conference and Ward's million-watt smile.
Instead, it ended with a few lines on the team's website, the official announcement that the Steelers will release Ward.
Ward responded online later. Two web posts, and that was it for 14 years.
Sad that it ended in that manner, but there's a fundamental disagreement here.
Ward thinks he still has something to offer. The Steelers believe his tank is empty.
If there weren't salary cap issues, maybe the Steelers would have been inclined to manipulate things to bring Ward back for one more season.
Or maybe their minds were made up that Ward had gotten every bit of production his battered body and strong will had to offer.
Whatever the case, No. 86 won't suit up for the Steelers in 2012, and that will seem strange.
Ward never had the speed or gracefulness of Hall of Fame predecessors Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, but he was never a traditional receiver.
He shared some of the diva tendencies common to those who play the position, but Ward embodied a toughness that has become synonymous with the Steelers.
It's not easy to be the symbol for Steelers football playing at a skill position, but Ward did that.
He made fearsome blocks on defensive players, to the point that some of them complained he was too rough.
He could take it, too. How many times did Ward get slammed by a tackler in a way that made you cringe from the comfort of your couch?
Most times, he'd bounce back up and smile, which had to infuriate his tacklers.
Ward had good hands, a knack for getting open and an ability to make big plays when they were most needed.
He was at his best when it counted most, and how he loved people selling him short.
That motivated him. The doubters were such a part of his mindset that he invented them when no one was casting aspersions on his ability.
He wasn't just a Steeler because he wore black and gold. He was a Steeler because he understood what that meant. He not only met the standard, he spent a lot of his career setting it.
Every player's day comes.
Terry Bradshaw's elbow fell apart. Joe Greene no longer required double-team blocking. Jack Lambert, so fierce and nasty, was done in by an injury with the silly name of turf toe.
Maybe there's a spot for Ward on another team. Maybe someone will try to squeeze one more year out of him. He would welcome a chance to prove doubters wrong again.
If he goes somewhere else, he'll be on that team's roster.
But he'll always be a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Mehno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org