Hines Ward always will have a connection to the state of Georgia.
The four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver and two-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers went to Forest Park High School and played at the University of Georgia. During his days with the Bulldogs, Ward played alongside now-coach Kirby Smart.
At the Atlanta Sports Awards recently, Ward presented the Georgia Positive High School Athlete award to Matthew Lane of Etowah High School.
Ward spoke with members of the media before the ceremony about the state of the Georgia football program, rule changes in the NFL involving player safety and the changes with the Steelers’ organization.
Q: What is it like for you being here in Atlanta at the Atlanta Sports Awards?
A: It’s Atlanta, recognizing the student-athletes and athletes all over, me being a Georgia boy, it’s a blessing in itself, I saw (Dikembe) Mutombo over there, apparently he’s getting a big award, a lifetime achievement award, anytime we can come out and help recognize awards and other organizations here in the city of Atlanta, it’s always good.
Q: I’ve noticed you’ve made some trips to the Georgia Children’s Hospital (in Augusta), what was that experience like for you?
A: Anytime you can come out and add smiles to kid’s faces, that’s what it’s all about. I’m just blessed to be here, to give back to the city that’s given me so much. Me being a Georgia boy, so, it feels good to be here tonight and actually present a student athlete with a positive athlete award which I’m very dear to.
Q: You mentioned you being a “Georgia boy,” I’m not sure how closely you’re still involved with the program, but I’m sure you always have an eye on what’s going on in Athens, with what coach Kirby Smart has done there, how much have you seen the program change?
A: We’re close, we’re getting the athletes, we’re keeping a lot of in-state kids, but Kirby has changed the culture, the mindset, of having that winning attitude, it’s great, it’s great for our school. It’s great for the state of Georgia. We’re close, we’ve been close so many times. Alabama, once we get over the hump, I think that’s what we need to do to realize that Georgia is here to stay for a long time.
Q: Why do you think Kirby has been so successful in recruiting?
A: He’s from the state of Georgia, so he knows the background all the different counties and cities. He understands the culture of Georgia football, how big it is here. The thing he’s done a tremendous job of is keeping in-state talent in Georgia. He’s went out and found some outstanding athletes for other states, but he’s learned from the best. When you follow Nick Saban around basically your entire career, you kind of pick up some tendencies, because you know what it takes to find success.
Q: What are your expectations for Georgia in 2019?
A: The expectations are very high. I really believe that we’ll win the (SEC) East and probably face Alabama again. Sometimes it’s just a matter that you just need a play here or there. Just getting over that hump, that just really gains you confidence. Then, it’s anybody’s game when you make it to the playoffs because its one game, win or go home. I think overcoming that hump, if they can get over that hump with Alabama in the (SEC) championship game, they have a legitimate shot at the championship.
Q: What kind of feelings do you have when you watch Kirby (Smart) these days, with all the success and the money he’s making, because you knew him back when he was a teammate of yours?
A: I’m happy for Kirby. It’s well-deserved. He put a lot of years into it, he put himself in this position to be head coach of the University of Georgia, just seeing his success, myself, Champ Bailey, Robert Edwards, we’re all cheering for him. We take pride in the state of Georgia, so we want to see Georgia on top. It’s kind of great to see the red and black relevant again and talking in championship terms, so I’m super excited for him and he’ll continue to do it. We’ll get over that hump.
Q: Speaking of Champ, what do you think about him taking his place in (the Pro Football Hall of Fame) this fall?
A: Yeah, I’m so happy for Champ. I can always say I played with guys and Champ, I knew he was special when he came to Athens. I was a little older than him, but you could see it from an early age that he was going to be very special. We had some good battles in the league. For him, I wish he would’ve gotten a ring and actually got all of that. That’s always the missing piece of the puzzle, when you play, you’ve made money, but you’ve never really got close. But, I’m just happy, he’s a Hall of Famer, it’s well-deserved, I’ll be there rooting him on and cheering for him. He’s a special player.
Q: The NFL’s rules have changed over time, what are your thoughts on the NFL changing its rule to protect player safety?
A: Well, I mean, football is a dangerous sport. It’s not made for everyone. Kudos to the NFL trying to do their best to try and clean the game up, but it’s still a physical game, it’s such a bang bang type of sport, its hard to change your launch angle and hit different areas and stuff like that. So, there’s going to be penalties, there’s going to be fines, but the league has done a tremendous job to try the clean game up as much as they can.
What do you think about all the change that’s going on with your former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers?
A: It’s just getting back to Steelers football. Not really the drama that goes on outside of football, off the field. It’s really, let’s just line up, come together as a team, just line up and kick tail, that’s the Pittsburgh way. In order to get over the hump and get past New England and all that, I think that’s key is just lining up and focus on football, leave all the other stuff at home.
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