Ward to report to camp; new deal expected

Updated: August 15, 2005, 8:34 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

PITTSBURGH -- Pro Bowl wide receiver Hines Ward ended his 15-day contract holdout and reported to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday.

ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports that the team will reciprocate by resuming negotiations on a new contract in hopes that a deal can be struck by the end of the week

Ward arrived at Heinz Field about two hours before the Steelers' exhibition against the Philadelphia Eagles and was quickly escorted into the stadium by a team official to watch the game.

Steelers Coach Bill Cowher talked at length with the four-time Pro Bowl receiver on Sunday night and convinced him of his importance to a team that went 15-1 last season.

"For me, I needed to hear that from my head coach, this support -- that's all a player can ask for. If your coach doesn't have confidence in you as a ballplayer, maybe you need to part ways," Ward said before the game. "It's been a long time since we had a conversation like that. ... That's why I'm here, showing good faith, because I want to retire a Steeler."

Ward, poised to become the leading receiver in Steelers' history this season, became the team's first major holdout in 12 years on July 31 -- keeping his promise not to report to training camp without a contract extension that would make him one of the NFL's top-paid wide receivers.

But the Steelers also kept their promise of not negotiating with a player under contract who is not in camp. Ward hopes his arrival will lead to a deal being reached, but realizes an injury or a poor season could significantly reduce his value not just to the Steelers but as a free agent after this season.

Ward has one year remaining on a contract worth $1.66 million this season, but wants guaranteed money that puts him in the upper echelon of NFL receivers -- even though he said it's unrealistic to expect Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss or Terrell Owens money.

The 29-year-old Ward disliked being mentioned almost daily with Owens, who wants more money a year after signing a $49 million contract with the Eagles. Ward said, "I hate seeing me put in this situation. It's totally different."

"This isn't about Marvin Harrison money -- I'm here because I want to retire as a Steeler,'' said Ward, who owns three of the four most productive seasons by a receiver in team history. "I don't even think I'd look right in another uniform. ... It's unfortunate it came to a holdout, because I wouldn't miss this season for the world."

Since Ward failed to report, several teammates made impassioned pleas for the team to re-sign Ward, with linebacker Joey Porter saying the Steelers "can't win without him." And running back Jerome Bettis said teammates were watching how the Steelers handled the Ward contract talks after the team asked several players in recent seasons -- including Bettis himself -- to take pay cuts to stay with the team.

"The guys have been very supportive of me," Ward said.

Ward's absence threatened to create a major distraction for a team that went 15-1 and played in the AFC championship game last season, and left quarterback Ben Roethlisberger without either starting wide receiver from his unbeaten rookie regular season. Plaxico Burress signed with the Giants during the offseason.

The Steelers were so thin on receivers last week in camp with Ward gone and Antwaan Randle El hurt that fourth-round draft pick Fred Gibson, an unpolished rookie from Georgia, spent two days with the first unit.

Ward, one of the NFL's top-blocking receivers, and Bettis have personified the Steelers' offense for years. Ward is within 33 catches of breaking Hall of Famer John Stallworth's team record of 537 receptions.

"We've got a great opportunity to make another run at it," Ward said. "Ben is the future of the organization, and I want to be here."

"Do I regret it?" Ward said of his holdout. "No, I want to be a part of this organization. ... I told my agent, Eugene [Parker], 'I want to retire a Steeler, so you do what it takes to make it happen.'"

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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