Hines Ward loves attention. Whereas many NFL players are reclusive in retirement, the former Pittsburgh Steeler, two-time champ, and MVP of Super Bowl XL has actually spent more time on television: He seared flank steak on the Food Network’s “Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off”; He sprinted from Gotham’s sinking football field in “The Dark Knight Rises”; He thirsted for flesh as a gashed up, cock-eyed zombie in “The Walking Dead”; He mastered the rumba on his way to winning Season 12 of “Dancing with the Stars.” He’s everywhere and he’s not a subtle presence.
“Single moms, teachers, people who would never watch football know who I am,” he says with his signature smile.
But he hasn’t gone all Hollywood just yet. He taught himself to swim so he could run an IronMan and he broadcasts Sunday Night Football alongside Bob Costas. “I call it like I see it,” he says of his notable on-air candor. And, yes, he’s comfortable criticizing his old team. Much to his former employer’s dismay, he’s really, really comfortable criticizing his old team.
Appearing at a mock combine for Degree for Men, Ward talked to Maxim about what it’s like to be the most unpopular popular guy in Pittsburgh.
What is your relationship like with your former teammates in the NFL?
Well, I'm close to some of them. Now, there may be people that you work with, that you don't get along with, that you want to slap the shit out of but you can't. But you respect what they do. And that was the case. A lot of my teammates, I love those guys because of what we went through to win a championship. But we weren't always on the same page. They did things that I didn't agree with. I did things that they didn't agree with. We don't have the same beliefs. But together we found a way to make it work.
Unlike a lot of former NFL players now in media, you’re pretty hard on your former team and teammates.
I just see what I see on tape. I call it like I see it. We lost to Tampa Bay at home. We shouldn't have lost. Then the way we played in Cleveland. . I feel like, for me, yes, I love you guys but look what you're putting on tape. I'm not talking out of my butt, I'm speaking what I see.
I don't think NBC would want me to sugarcoat things. I have to be critical of the guys I played with. They may take it personally; I don't take it personally. Those are just my opinions. My opinions shouldn't matter, shouldn't change the outcome of somebody winning.
Seems like some Steelers fans question your loyalty.
Sometimes I get frustrated with fans because I played the game and some of these fans have never even played the game. I love Pittsburgh to the core. I played 14 years. I retired as a Steeler. I didn't want to play with anyone else. So that alone should tell you how committed and dedicated I am.
When asked about your criticism, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin described it as “elevator music.”
It is! My opinion and Coach Cower's opinions shouldn't affect the team. It hurts because we played there.
If you guys are losing to Cleveland, it's everybody's fault. It ain't about one guy is playing better. You win as a team; you lose as a team. I can't say it's all [offensive coordinator] Todd Haley's fault. You can't. All the leaders, quarterback included, have got to be held accountable.
Your exact words that got you in some hot water were "put a little bit of the blame on Ben Roethlisberger."
They take "little bit" out. But that's media. I understand that. If people want to take that little bit out, it's headlines. I'm not going to shy away from my words.
Did any former teammates reach out to you after that?
My old teammates who are no longer on the team all said good things to me. That's what's funny about it. The teammates that I played with, that know the situation, they said, I'm glad you said that.
What about any current players?
They're not going to say anything. I said the defense is soft. I'm not talking about James Harrison, but, collectively, you guys need to play better. Play Steelers football.
When I played, we physically dominated other teams - physically and mentally. That was our M.O. for years. That's how I was brought up, what I learned from guys. And then to see how they performed against Cleveland, it's almost like the roles were reversed. Cleveland physically beat the Steelers up and we waved the white flag at the end. For me, that's not Steelers football. So for people to be so critical of me, I'm just telling you like I see it on tape.
What would you change about the NFL right now?
We have to get a better understanding of what's acceptable and what's not acceptable because some guy who's getting busted for weed is getting a year ban out the league and a guy who's involved in domestic violence gets two games. That is a bad sign for the NFL.
It sounds like you don’t want to see guys getting those suspensions for weed.
I don't do drugs. It is what it is. I just think, to me, you're losing millions of dollars. Just leave it alone. I would never jeopardize losing money. The players who are doing weed: You're losing millions of dollars to smoke weed. Are you crazy? I would never jeopardize being suspended and losing millions of dollars because I can't say no to a joint. Come on.
Are there any downsides to having strong opinions and a big audience?
I mess up. Well, I'm stupid. My son is 10 years old, now he's starting to get in on the Twitter world. He’s starting to read these things. What am I supposed to teach him about life while he's reading that? There's no rule book that says you know, don't listen to that, people are always going to say stuff. But I try to keep my personal life personal and all the other stuff. What you see is what you get.
Is it different being Hines Ward now that the words “Wide Receiver” aren’t always in front of your name?
When I signed up to do ‘Dancing With the Stars’ that put me in a whole other category. Now elderly women are paying attention to me.
What projects are you working on when you’re away from football?
There's a movie opportunity. I am asked to do a lot of different roles like in television, to be a guest on one of the shows. I can't give too many details.
Come on, give me something. What is the part?
Well it's me playing myself, playing for Pittsburgh.
Photos by Gene J. Puskar / AP