Last weekend may have been a strange time to connect one of the more decorated players in Pittsburgh Steelers history with rookie minicamp, what with tryout players comprising the vast majority of those taking part in the three practices.
But the more that came out of Steelers minicamp – and even before that — the more I kept hearing Hines Ward.
Cornerbacks Joey Porter Jr. and Cory Trice Jr. were going to play angry and with a chip, respectively. And they were just the drafted players who publicly expressed in some form that they had been slighted (Darnell Washington’s knee may tell both to hold its beer).
Thirty-three players tried out for the slim chance that they could later try out for the Steelers. Six more from rookie minicamp were two weeks removed from hearing 259 names called during the 2023 NFL Draft but not theirs.
There were so many chips that it could have been Pittsburgh Steelers rookie minicamp sponsored by Frito-Lay.
Which brings me back to Ward, a chip master who used slights – perceived (!!!) and real –to motivate himself. Even after he became a Super Bowl MVP, he still referred to himself as a “low-round draft choice” who nobody thought would make it.
The low-round characterization was a stretch given that Ward was a third-round pick in 1998. Just don’t use Nick Herbig’s arms to measure that stretch. They are short, you know.
Ward’s underdog sensibilities, which he never hesitated to voice, could come across as silly after he had established himself as one of the best Steelers players of his era. But any criticism or eye rolling that his nobody-believed-in-me spiel induced missed the point.
What mattered is that Ward believed what he was saying. And it fueled him from the time he was a special teams grunt until he made his 1,000th and final NFL catch. For all we know, Ward was saying, “I was a low-round draft choice that nobody gave a chance” as he was being tackled after the milestone catch in Cleveland.
Ward will one day end up in Canton – at least he should. Did perceived slights, ones he probably repeated to himself in his sleep, make him any more eager ear hole Bart Scott? Or any more willing go over the middle knowing that even the popcorn vendors at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium wanted to knock him into 2059?
Of course they did, which is why there is value in a player feeling like he was slighted (even if it is impossible to quantify how that translates to on-field production).
And that’s where Mike Tomlin and the newest Steelers, such as Porter and Trice, come in. Say what you will about Tomlin’s playoff wins drought. The man is a master motivator who knows what buttons to push.
Among the many unremarkable OTA practices I covered, one moment still stands out, In May 2009, rookie center A.Q. Shipley was walking to the practice field when Tomlin asked how he was doing.
His short arms too.
Yes, Shipley had arms that were less than ideal for the position, which is why the Steelers were able to get the only Rimington Award winner in Penn State history with the 226th pick of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Tomlin made reference to Shipley’s arms with a smile but it was clear what he was doing. Shipley became expendable in Pittsburgh the next year after the Steelers drafted center Maurkice Pouncey in the first round, but he went on to start 72 of the 110 NFL games he played in elsewhere before a neck injury ended his career.
If Herbig hasn’t already heard about his short arms from Tomlin, the fourth-round draft pick almost surely will before or during a practice in the coming weeks. How much will that help as he tries to emerge as the outside linebacker the Steelers desperately need behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith? Who the hell knows.
But it certainly won’t hurt if he and the other rookies who feel slighted are able to channel their inner Hines Ward.