Gene J. Puskar, File, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — Hines Ward's constant, ear-to-ear smile tucked behind a black facemask has been a lasting image for Pittsburgh Steelers fans the past 14 seasons.
They won't see it again.
At least, not in a black-and-gold uniform.
The franchise's all-time leader in just about every meaningful receiving category will be released sometime in the next two weeks said president Art Rooney II on the team's website on Wednesday.
"We had a conversation today with Hines Ward and informed him that we plan to release him of his contract prior to the start of the 2012 NFL calendar year," Rooney said. "Hines has been an integral part of our success since we drafted him in 1998, and we will forever be grateful for what he has helped us achieve."
A four-time Pro Bowl selection and MVP of the 2006 Super Bowl, Ward will finish his Steelers career with 1,000 catches, 12,083 yards and 85 receiving touchdowns. He helped Pittsburgh to three AFC championships and a pair of Super Bowl wins.
The former "Dancing With the Stars" champion — who spent last weekend working the red carpet at the Oscars — doesn't appear ready to put away his cleats just yet, however.
While saying "this isn't how I wanted this chapter of my career to end," Ward vowed to return for a 15th season next fall.
"I do feel that I still have more football left in me and I am looking forward to playing in the NFL, again, this upcoming season," Ward said in a statement.
A third-round pick out of Georgia, Ward developed a reputation as one of the league's best blocking wide receivers, a trait that endeared him to the blue-collar fan base of one of the league's marquee franchises.
Ward was pretty good at catching passes too, particularly in the postseason. He helped the Steelers to their fifth Super Bowl in 2006 catching five passes for 123 receiving yards and a touchdown in a 21-10 win over Seattle.
"He has meant so much to this organization, both on and off the field," Rooney said, "and we appreciate his efforts over the past 14 years."
Just not enough to bring Ward, who turns 36 next week, back at $4 million next season. The Steelers are in the midst of a roster-wide salary purge and a youth movement at receiver.
By the end of the 2011 season, Ward found himself on the sidelines for long stretches as youngsters Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown turned into quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's favorite targets.
Both receivers topped 1,100 yards receiving and combined for 10 touchdowns, while Ward had just 46 catches for 381 yards and two scores. It was the worst reception total since his rookie year (15).
Ward took the demotion in stride and relished the role of elder statesmen. Wallace, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders credited Ward for helping mature both on and off the field.
All three players hoped Ward would come back for one more go, but understood they were nearing the end of an era.
"We all know the direction in which we're going with the receiving corps," Sanders said last month. "But, like I said, Hines is still a great addition, just the knowledge he brings to the room. You can't pay for that. You can't coach that. He just brings that well being of how to be a pro into the room."
Now he'll try to take it elsewhere.
In a franchise built on the churning legs of Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier and Jerome Bettis, Ward blossomed into one of the league's most reliable receivers while serving as a security blanket for everyone from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox to Roethlisberger. Ward has six 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and just missed two more, posting 975 in both 2005-06 and 2006-07. He also returned eight kicks for 210 yards.
"Hines' accomplishments are numerous," Rooney said, "and he will always be thought of as one of the all-time great Steelers.
"We wish him nothing but the best."
In his last game as a Steeler, a 29-23 postseason, overtime loss to the Denver Broncos on Jan. 8, Ward did not record a catch.
The final pass thrown to him in a Steeler uniform came on Pittsburgh's final drive when Roethlisberger tried to hit Ward running down the sideline. Denver defensive back Champ Bailey knocked it away, leaving Ward to face an uncertain future.
He may end his career in a different city, but Ward left little doubt where his heart lies.
"I gave my heart and soul for (the fans) every down and I will always bleed black-and-gold," Ward said.
Now, he'll have to do it wearing another uniform if he wants to play again.
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