One of Georgia’s favorite sons has played his last professional football game. I don’t have much to say about Hines Ward the professional. Sure, I watched the Super Bowls. But I’m not surprised at the pro he became. What he was in Pittsburgh he was at Georgia. He was a fan favorite in Athens and would have been wherever he played at the next level. Ward will always be associated with the Falcons’ decision to draft Jammi German, but I’m glad that Ward was able to play someplace where he could realize the individual and team accomplishments that he deserved but never got in college.
Hines Ward of course became one of the most celebrated and beloved Bulldogs by the time he finished his four years in Athens. There are many reasons for that status. Simple production was good enough for most; he was a great player and athlete. Versatility was another. We can point to memorable games in which he featured as a tailback, a quarterback, and certainly as a receiver. Put it all together with the trademark smile, and it was impossible to dislike him.
The death spiral of the 1995 season was tough on a lot of people, especially those on whom it took a physical toll, but it put Ward in one of the least enviable positions you could imagine. The season was in enough trouble with the injury to Robert Edwards. It got worse when Mike Bobo’s broken leg led to a loss at Ole Miss.
Ward had started 1995 at receiver due to the emergence of Robert Edwards. When Edwards was injured, Ward moved back to tailback. Bobo’s injury meant another position change. Georgia’s next opponent after Ole Miss was Alabama. The Tide had dropped a little from their 1992 national championship level, but they were still ranked and featured one of the best defensive lines in the nation. Ward was given less than a week to prepare for his first career start under center, and he never had a chance. He was pulled from the game, and a lot of us considered that experiment done and over with.
Georgia found a way to squeeze out ugly low-scoring wins against Clemson, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky, but Ward was once again put in a tough spot when championship game-bound Florida came to Athens. Though the Dawgs had no prayer against the Florida offense, Ward showed some signs of life with 226 yards passing and another 65 more on the ground while running for his life.
By the end of the 1995 season Ward led the Dawgs to a comeback win over Georgia Tech, and that was enough to get Georgia into the Peach Bowl. Most of us know what happened there.
In 1996, Ward was able to move on a more permanent basis to receiver. I wish there were video of the flip he did to secure the win over Texas Tech. By 1997 he was no longer an athlete in search of a position; he was a receiver known for this:
Typical of his versatility was the win over Florida in 1997 when Ward had seven receptions for 85 yards, ran five times for 21 yards, completed two passes for 27 yards and returned two kickoffs for 70 yards.
That didn’t even mention the block to spring Edwards. Robert Edwards’ touchdown to break open the 1997 Florida game was possible because Ward had sealed off the lane down the sideline. Ward’s blocking and love for contact is the stuff of hyperbole, but he brought the same approach and fearlessness running, throwing, and as a receiver.
Though he spent all that time running or throwing the ball over his first two seasons, he still left Georgia sixth in career receptions. There was no doubt that he was a receiver, and that’s where he would make his mark at the next level. He’ll be remembered here as one of Georgia’s greatest all-around offensive skill players, and I wish the staff could have done more to get him to 1,000 career passing yards. His professional success gives him the freedom to do anything he wishes with the rest of his life, but I hope he and the University find some way for him to have as much of a presence around the Georgia program as he wants.