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BY DAVID SCHIELE
With apologies to Terrell Owens, this is the weekend to get your popcorn ready. The Atlanta Falcons travel Sunday to Pittsburgh for their sixth meeting against the Steelers since 1999, and consider this: The previous five were decided by a touchdown or less, including three straight overtime games.
If you ask former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, the best of those thrillers came in 2006.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” Ward told me recently during a FaceTime chat about that game, along with other subjects.
Here’s the scene:
The defending Super Bowl champion Steelers visited Atlanta for a Week 7 battle with Michael Vick and the Falcons inside of the Georgia Dome. Both teams were third in their respective divisions and needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Although another championship run was important to Ward, this marquee matchup was a homecoming for the Rex, Ga., native.
“I grew up as an Atlanta Falcons fan…my dream was to one day play for the Falcons,” Ward said, without the hint of his famous smile.
That’s because he recalled how his desire to join the Dirty Birds wasn’t fulfilled after he became a star nearby at the University of Georgia. Instead, he was picked by the Steelers in the third round of the 1998 draft, and eight years later, he played his first professional football game in his hometown.
“I had to get 60 tickets to that game,” Ward said. “I had all of Forest Park [and] my whole family [at the game].”
The Pro Bowl receiver put on a show for all of those he brought to the game and the rest of the Steelers fans who helped pack the Georgia Dome.
Late in the first quarter, Ward hauled in an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and broke out the “Dirty Bird dance.” Pittsburgh led 10-7, and then they were ahead 24-21 midway through the third quarter when the game took a turn. Falcons defensive tackle Chauncey Davis blasted Roethlisberger, knocking the then-young player out of the game. This forced veteran backup Charlie Batch to handle quarterback duties.
Ward wouldn’t let that stop him from having a big day.
Just four minutes after losing one of the NFL’s star quarterbacks, Ward had the most underrated plays of his career. With just one shoe on, he caught a pass and outran cornerback DeAngelo Hall for a 70-yard touchdown.
“DeAngelo stepped on the back of my heel, and I felt my heel coming out of my shoe, so I just kicked it off,” Ward said, laughing with the memory. “To me, how can a guy (like me) with one sock, who’s slow…outrun somebody (like Hall) who’s considered one of the fastest guys in the league...A lot of it had to do with me being scared.”
During what had become a back-and-forth battle throughout the afternoon, that touchdown gave Pittsburgh a 31-28 lead. Ward eventually reached the end zone again to solidify arguably the best game of his career.
Unfortunately for Ward and his Steelers, Vick also had a career day, throwing four touchdown passes to counter the fire power of the visitors. Then for the second of those three consecutive times for these teams, the game went into overtime. The Falcons won the toss and Morten Anderson kicked a 32-yard field goal to give Atlanta the 41-38 victory.
Despite 171 receiving yards and a career-best three touchdown catches, Ward’s homecoming ended in defeat.
“I had this whole party [planned],” Ward said. “I was going to take my whole crew out to eat to Fogo de Chão…then we lost, [so] I went home.”
There may have been no celebratory Brazilian steak that night, but Hines now has plenty of accomplishments to relish, including four Pro Bowl selections, two Super Bowl rings, a Super Bowl MVP award, various stints as a television football announcer and a “Dancing with the Stars” championship.
He also has plenty of shoes.
David Schiele is a journalism major and an African American studies minor at Georgia State University, graduating in December. He’s the former sports director of GSU’s student TV station. In his free time, David watches pro wrestling, plays video games, and reads. Follow him on twitter @Deacon_Schiele