NFL Analyst & Former Star Receiver Discusses his Korean Heritage
Hines Ward is a champion on and off the football field who has come a long way from his birthplace in Seoul, South Korea. The retired National Football League (NFL) wide receiver, who is currently an NBC studio analyst, holds every receiving record in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Born in Seoul in 1976 to a Korean mother and an African American father, he grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and has become an advocate for the social acceptance of foreigners and mixed-race youth in South Korea. In addition, President Barack Obama, who has called Hines Ward “the happiest man in football,” appointed Hines a member of the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The two-time Super Bowl Champion and MVP of Super Bowl XL is a four-time Pro Bowler, the all-time team leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, and the only receiver in Steeler history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards for four straight seasons. He was named to the Steelers’ 75th Season All-Time Team and on January 1 2012, his last catch as a Pittsburgh Steeler made NFL history as Hines became the eighth player to reach 1,000 career receptions. Since his retirement from the NFL, he has appeared on television and the silver screen, making cameos in The Dark Knight Rises and The Walking Dead, and championing the dance floor as a reality TV star, winning Season 12 of ABC's hit dance competition Dancing with the Stars. His many achievements have resulted in Hines being featured on the cover of such publications as TIME Magazine, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire, and as one of GQ's 2009 "Men of the Year.” Hines Ward shared insight into his Korean roots and his many achievements with Seoul Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie.
SJ: How did you first get started in football?
WARD: I’ve always loved to play sports. It all started when I was a kid. I was actually pretty good at all sports, but I really excelled in football. I became the starting quarterback for my high school team as a sophomore and became my team's leader. I started at both offense and defense, and loved the game.
SJ: What was your daily regimen as a Pittsburg Steeler and what is your daily regimen like now?
WARD: I always pride myself on hard work. That's how my mom raised me. She taught me to work harder than the next person and to never quit. So as a Steeler, I took that work ethic I learned at a very young age and constantly strove to be the best I could be at my position. I was always in the weight room or film room studying film of my opponents. The hard work paid off. Nowadays, I still work out every day. I combine weight workouts with cardio routines. I also run and bike each week to make sure I stay in shape. It's part of who I am.
SJ: What is your most memorable moment as a football player?
WARD: Probably winning the Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl XL. That moment was surreal. There are only 49 Super Bowl MVP's in the world and I am truly blessed to be one of them.
SJ: How did the team celebrate winning Super Bowl XL? How did you personally celebrate it?
WARD:The team celebrated with the whole city of Pittsburgh. There was a parade and we also got to go to the White House where the entire team was honored by the President. But we didn't celebrate too long because we knew that once the Super Bowl was over, we had next year to try to win it again. In Pittsburgh, there is a rich history and tradition of winning. We own the most Super Bowl trophies in the league so we had a reputation to keep up. Personally, I celebrated that particular Super Bowl with a trip to Seoul, South Korea. My mom and I had already planned that trip even before we won it. But it became so much more meaningful to me as a Korean African-American after we won the Super Bowl. It was a time I will always remember. It brought me closer to my Korean heritage and I was grateful for that.
SJ: Do you miss the game? What did you enjoy most about playing?
WARD: I don't actually miss the hard hitting of the game at all. It's no fun when you give it your all on Sundays, and then spend your Mondays icing up in a cold tub. What I do miss is the camaraderie and the brotherhood of my teammates. When you are so used to being with a band of brothers for 14 years and you are used to seeing them everyday, it's a weird feeling to suddenly not see them anymore. We had some great times and made some unforgettable memories.
SJ: What do you enjoy most about what you do now?
WARD: I enjoy the freedom to do and pursue whatever opportunities I like. It's nice to be able to live a somewhat normal life to a degree. I have more down time to pursue hobbies that I could never pursue when I was playing. I am really into golf now and improving my golf game. So every chance I get I try to take lessons and play.
SJ: From a receiver to an analyst for NBC, what are the main differences in the two career paths that you have undertaken? How intimately are they connected?
WARD:They are two very different paths. There is nothing like playing. With broadcasting, I'm still learning and have a long way to go. As a broadcaster, I am able to see the entire field and watch replays. It's a different perspective altogether.
SJ: How did your cameos in The Dark Knight Rises and The Walking Dead come about? Were you a fan?
WARD: My agent, Andrew Ree, got me those roles. He is always pushing me to challenge myself and do different things. He and I have a completely trusting relationship and I know he is never going to steer me wrong.
SJ: Had you done a lot of dancing before Dancing with the Stars? What was the most challenging part about it?
WARD :Again, my agent, Andrew Ree, got that opportunity for me. He thought that by doing the show, I would gain a whole new fan base and he was right. I think I am more known now for dancing than 14 years of playing football in the league. It's crazy. Before doing the show, I had never danced a day in my life. The most challenging part was learning all the routines and wearing the tight clothes and shoes. That was hard.
SJ: What did you enjoy the most about Dancing with the Stars?
WARD : Getting to meet the other celebrities and staying in football shape. Dancing is great exercise and kept me in great shape.
SJ: Do you feel your footwork in football helped you to be a better dancer?
WARD: Not really. Dancing is definitely much harder than playing football for me.
SJ: Is dancing as physically strenuous as playing football?
WARD:It is very strenuous especially given how much as we practiced. It was grueling.
SJ: I understand you competed in a triathlon. Do you plan on doing it again?
WARD: Again, that was something my agent got for me and was the most challenging thing I had ever done. As a football player, I was used to using fast twitch muscle power. With the Ironman [triathlon], it's all about endurance training, so I had to train my body to go in an entirely opposite direction. It was grueling. I'm glad I completed it, but don't think I will ever do a full [triathlon] again.
SJ: What are your hobbies?
WARD: My hobby right now is golf. And of course, being with my wife and son.
SJ: Are you connected to your Korean heritage?
WARD:I think I am. I love the food and I respect and practice many of the customs in my house as well. I make folks take their shoes off in my home and we eat Korean food several times a month. I used to visit Korea twice a year, but with my rigorous NBC schedule, I am not able to do so right now. I plan to go back again in the near future.
SJ: Do you speak Korean?
WARD:I can say some basic words. I would say I speak at a first grade level and that's stretching it.
SJ: Do you listen to any Korean music or watch Korean films?
WARD:I don't get to listen to much Korean music or watch Korean videos, but my mom does all the time.
SJ: Do you like Korean food?
WARD: I love Korean food. All types. I crave it once a week and have to find the nearest Korean restaurant or have my mom make some of my favorites all the time.
SJ: Have you ever studied Taekwondo or any martial art?
WARD:I never did. I was always playing organized sports.
SJ: Would you ever consider coaching football in Korea or in another country?
WARD:I would definitely consider coaching football in America and doing football camps and clinics abroad.
SJ: I understand you became an advocate for the social acceptance of foreigners in Korea, especially mixed-race youth. Can you tell us about that?
WARD:I think that part of my story is fairly well known. I came to know the plight of mixed-race kids through my affiliation with Pearl S. Buck International. My heart went out to those kids because I am one of them. So that became my mission abroad, to provide mixed-blood kids with the same opportunities as pure-blood kids. I want to instill in them the will and perseverance to pursue their dreams and overcome their obstacles.
SJ: Can you tell us about your other philanthropic endeavors?
WARD:I have been involved in so many; it would take too long to list them all. I have started a Positive Athlete program here in the states designed to raise money for scholarships for underprivileged kids who are the unsung leaders in their communities. It is going extremely well right now.
SJ: I understand President Barack Obama appointed you as a member of the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Can you tell us about that?
WARD:That was a big honor for me. As a WH Commissioner, my colleagues and I were tasked with being the community liaisons between the federal government and locals. It was a true honor to serve on this Presidential Commission.
SJ: Who are your heroes?
WARD:My personal hero is my mom, of course. Without her work ethic and dedication to my growth, I wouldn't be where I am today. My other heroes are the thousands of mixed-race kids who face so much adversity everyday and still rise above. Those are the real heroes.
SJ: What has been your proudest achievement?
WARD:That depends. On the field, it would have to be winning two Super Bowls and the MVP. Off the field, it would have to be my philanthropic work.
SJ: What are your goals for the future?
WARD: I will answer this generally: to be the best I can be at whatever I decide to take on in life. I also want to continue to be a role model to kids everywhere. I want them to know that if they work hard and do it the right way, they will succeed.
SJ: How important is it for the league to continue to address the issue of players getting concussions? What rules, tactics or equipment do you think need to be implemented to help reduce the number of concussions that occur on the field?
WARD: This is an issue that is very near to my heart as I, myself, have suffered a few concussions in my playing days. But I don't know enough yet to give a fully educated opinion as to what must be done to reduce the number of concussions. I am thankful that this issue has risen to the forefront of football today and I will trust in the process for now. I will continue to keep abreast of the newest developments and will assist when I can. I am confident that this issue will be handled with extreme caution and care to the furthest extent possible. Football is a violent sport and is not for everybody. I think education and awareness is the key to prevention and treatment.
SJ: What’s the difference between a good football player and a great football player?
WARD: : I can sum that up in one quote: hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. That is the difference between a good football player and a great one.
SJ: What was your greatest strength as a player?
WARD: I think my greatest strength was my passion and love for the game. That enabled me to play with intensity and joy.
SJ: How important is intelligence on the football field?
WARD: Intelligence is extremely important on the football field. If you don't have the intelligence to recognize and react, then you will not be effective at your position.
SJ: What does it take to become a coach? Can most professional football players smoothly transition into coaching?
WARD:It takes dedication, determination and a solid work ethic to be a coach. The transition from playing to coaching can be seamless with some players, but it is a transition for most and is not as easy as some may think.
SJ: What advice would you give to any college player just entering the NFL?
WARD: Never quit and always give it your best. If you want to make it in the league, you have to dig deep at all times. The NFL often stands for “not for long,” so you have to make the most of every opportunity you are given because you may not get a second chance.
SJ: What advice would you give to anyone pursuing a career in professional athletics?
WARD: Make sure it is right for you and that you have the heart to persevere. Football is not for everybody. We that play the game all know what we sign up for. And it is realizing a dream for many of us.
All photos courtesy of Dave Decker (@AxsDeny)