ARLINGTON, Texas – Hines Ward isn't sure what all the fuss is about.
The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver has been called all kinds of things during his career, and most of them aren't too nice.
He's dirty, some say. Sneaky. A blind-side hitter. A cheap-shot artist.
"Everybody (says), 'Well, he hits guys when they're not looking,'" Ward said Tuesday during media day at the Super Bowl. "Well, should I tap on your shoulder and say, 'Here I come, hit me?' At the end of the day, I just play football the way it should be played."
Well, that depends on who you talk to.
Sports Illustrated conducted a poll of nearly 300 players last season, asking them who the league's dirtiest player was. Ward got nearly twice the votes of the second-place finishers, Albert Haynesworth and Joey Porter.
"Do I look mean?" Ward said with a devilish grin. "I'm just fine. I'm loving life."
And, not changing a thing about the way he plays.
"That's how I was taught as a little child," he said, "and I continue to play like that here in the NFL."
He's not alone, even on his own team. Linebacker James Harrison has been fined several times during his career for hits that were considered over the line. Back in the hard-hitting days of the dominant Steel Curtain in the 1970s, the Steelers built a reputation on playing physical. Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert even said the NFL should put skirts on quarterbacks so he and his defensive teammates would know not to hit them.
"All we have to do is just continue playing football the way we know how to play," Ward said, "and just go from there."
Some point to the vicious pop that he put on Cincinnati's Keith Rivers during the 2008 season, breaking the linebacker's jaw and causing the league to change its rules governing blocking — sometimes called the "Hines Ward Rule."
"He's a physical guy and he tries to get close to you and try to start some stuff, but it's a physical game," Green Bay safety Nick Collins said. "If he's physical with you, you've got to be physical with him."
But what about those who say he's dirty?
"No, he's not," Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall said. "He's physical, aggressive, a great guy and a great player."
There's no disputing that last label. Since being drafted in the third round out of Georgia in 1998, Ward has been a four-time Pro Bowl selection, a Super Bowl MVP and a two-time champion. He has 954 career catches — more than Hall of Fame Steelers receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, combined — for nearly 12,000 yards and 83 touchdowns. Ward also has 81 postseason receptions, and needs only five on Sunday to pass Buffalo's Andre Reed for third on the career list.
"He's meant a lot to this organization, his face, his character, his play more than anything," Mendenhall said. "It's just the way he plays on the field and the tone he sets for those receivers and all the young guys that come in. Just as a professional and a veteran, he means a lot to this locker room."
"He's one of the parts of the machine," Mendenhall said of Ward, "and still an important part."
It's been that way for years. Burress and Holmes are gone, and so are several other young, once-promising receivers. But Ward remains a constant in a business in which longevity in one place is a rarity.
"I'm very lucky," he said with a laugh. "I've got a rabbit's foot here or something."
Whatever it is, it has been working for Ward and the Steelers, who find themselves in the Super Bowl for the third time in six years.
"I don't know if I'm the rock, but I do think about it, though," Ward said. "Considering Plax was here, Antwaan Randle El is back now, but Santonio was the Super Bowl MVP (in 2009) and he's no longer here. I look around and all the faces are changing except for me."
Ward hopes that doesn't change once this Super Bowl run is over. He turns 35 next month and is signed through 2013, but the looming threat of having no season because of an unclear labor situation could cloud things.
"If they lock out, it will be a lot of people's last game, because there won't be a season," Ward said. "I'm not retiring. I'm not in the mood to retire. That was the No. 1 question that was asked. It's almost like they're pushing me out. Until Coach Tomlin says he does not need my services anymore, I am going to continue playing."
Even if he wins a third ring?
"Playing in one Super Bowl is a big honor, but playing in three, that's unheard of," Ward said. "It's a great feeling when you do win. We're 2-0 at the Super Bowl, and I don't want to feel that other side. Hopefully we continue winning and bring that seventh one back to Pittsburgh."
His first, back in 2006, will always hold a special spot in his heart. After all, it produced the one label that he doesn't mind hearing attached to his name.
"Being the Super Bowl MVP, you go down in history as one of the greatest players during the Super Bowl," he said, the pride oozing through his wide smile. "Only 40-something guys can say that, so it's a very special feeling. Nobody can ever take that away from you."