Hines Ward’s constant, ear-to-ear smile tucked behind a black facemask has been a lasting image for 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 in the next two weeks, said president Art Rooney II yesterday on the team’s website.
“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 finishes his Steelers career with 1,000 catches, 12,083 yards, and 85 receiving TDs. He helped Pittsburgh to three AFC championships and a pair of Super Bowl wins.
While saying, “This isn’t how I wanted this chapter of my career to end,’’ Ward vowed to return for a 15th season.
“I do feel that I still have more football left in me,’’ 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 Steelers’ blue-collar fan base.
Ward was pretty good at catching passes too, particularly in the postseason. He helped the Steelers to their fifth Super Bowl win in 2006, catching five passes for 123 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, soon to be 36, back at $4 million next season.
Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas testified at former teammate Perrish Cox’s sexual assault trial in Castle Rock, Colo., saying that Cox carried a sleeping woman into his bed and then told Thomas: “I think she’s ready.’’
Cox is accused of sexually assaulting the woman, who testified earlier yesterday. Both the woman and Thomas told jurors they kissed on an air mattress at Cox’s apartment.
Thomas said the woman fell asleep, and he dismissed Cox’s suggestion, saying he didn’t want to have sex with the woman because she was drunk.
“I wanted to have sex with her but I didn’t,’’ Thomas testified. “We hadn’t done nothing before. I wasn’t going to try nothing that night because she had been drinking. She had got drunk.’’
Cox’s lawyer, Harvey Steinberg, objected to Thomas’s testimony because he hadn’t used the “she’s ready’’ phrase in a previous interview and asked for a mistrial. The judge rejected that.
Thomas said the woman was still in the bedroom when he left about an hour later.
The woman testified that she had a fuzzy memory of what happened that night and suspected she had been drugged.
Under questioning from Cox’s attorney, the woman said if something had happened with Thomas, she wouldn’t have considered it rape.
“It wouldn’t have been fine but I wouldn’t have seen it as rape if he admitted it,’’ she said, referring to Thomas.
She said Thomas denied that anything had happened. Later, she found out she was pregnant and contacted authorities on Oct. 28, 2010. Investigators say DNA tests indicate Cox is the father.
Chargers’ Dielman to retire
Chargers guard Kris Dielman, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, will announce his retirement today because of a series of concussions. A nine-year veteran, Dielman suffered a concussion in an Oct. 23 loss to the Jets, returned to the game, then had a seizure on the flight back to San Diego. He didn’t play again in 2011 . . . The Cardinals and Saints will kick off the preseason in the Hall of Fame game Aug. 5 in Canton, Ohio.