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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2002
Hines Ward is my favorite player in today's Super Bowl semis. Years before he became a clutch Pittsburgh receiver and vigorous blocker, the tough kid from a little Georgia town called Rex earned acubbyhole in my heart.
It was 1995. Because of Jacksonville stadium reconstruction, his Georgia Bulldogs played Florida in Athens, the only time since 1932 the fierce college football rivals played between the hedges of Sanford Stadium.
It became a Steve Spurrier scorefest.
Georgia's top two quarterbacks had been wiped out by injuries. Ward, who played the position in high school, was thrown in against the highly favored Gators. He was chased, battered, stomped and smothered, but not broken.
Ward's competitive zeal was indefatig-able. Like a boxer with classic gumption, being floored a dozen times or so, Hines kept rising. Swallowing hard. Gnashing teeth. Firing away. Scrapping against ridiculous odds.
An extraordinary soldier.
Spurrier gassed the score to 52-17, but Ward found enough daylight in the gloom to complete 20 of 33 passes for 226 yards. He rushed, frequently in desperation, for 65 more. A beacon in a killer storm.
A half-hour after the clobbering, I talked to the harassed sophomore, still wearing most of a muddy and bloody Georgia uniform. Hines was the picture of defeat, but as he hobbled a couple of blocks to the Bulldogs dressing room, I heard no complaints and no excuses, saw no tears, sensed no ill feelings against Spurrier and the pulverizing Gators.
Often, we learn more of a person's soul in moments of prime shortfall than in shouting conquest. Amid an overmatched pack of Dawgs, the teenager from Rex performed with a champion's verve, even as the scoreboard toll mounted, exhibiting personal qualities that, a half-dozen seasons later, have helped mature a borderline draft pick of 1997 into a Pro Bowl star.
A few weeks after being squashed by Florida, this Gritasaurus Rex became a Peach Bowl colossus, even as his Bulldogs were losing to Virginia, throwing 59 passes and completing 31 for 413 yards. Stout stuff for an emergency fill-in. So, look over No. 86 against New England, as catcher and blocker, and expect to see Hines Ward pluses that were so wonderfully evident in a time when the grand competitor from Rex was taking a load of nasty licks.
Today, he could become Super.
BLITZES: What an incredible, gritty, over-the-top comeback as Saddlebrook's Jennifer Capriati melted semi-Saddlebrook's Martina Hingis in a memorable Australian Open final. ... Have grass roots NASCAR folks ever realized, when a solid green banner is waved to start a race, it's an exact replica of the flag of Libya? ... Marv Levy, 76-year-old Fox football analyst and former Bills and Chiefs coach, said of a notable Vikings achiever/jerk, "The difference between Randy Moss and a dollar bill is that you can still get four quarters out of a dollar." ... Political comic Mark Russell suggests it's appropriate to change the name of the Astros' Enron Field to Leavenworth Park. ... Some wise Pinellas bloke tells me the difference between the Bucs and the Taliban is that the desert rats have a running game. ... Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Gil LeBreton wonders, "How does a Mayberry town like Nashville have an NFL team and the metropolis of Los Angeles still doesn't?" ... It's still difficult to believe, or to stomach, that South Bend football a-nointee Ty Willingham is the first African-American coach in any Notre Dame sport. ... Speaking of the Golden Domers, it's easy to forget that none of the Four Horsemen, the immortalized 1925 N.D. backfield of Don Miller, Elmer Layden, Jim Crowley and Harry Stuhldreher, weighed as much as 170 pounds.
READER'S SHOUT: E-mail from Jim "Butch" Wright says, "Between my civilian job and Operation Enduring Freedom as a reservist, I find scant time to read about my Bucs. I note with a bad sense of deja vu the egregious moves on the part of the Glazer boys to bring Bill Parcells in as coach. Brings back way too many memories of the departed Hugh Culverhouse.
"They got rid of Tony Dungy and had no backup plan if Parcells spurned them (history, boys, history!). Add to it that they didn't leave it to Rich McKay to do the work and shut out Steve Spurrier by focusing only on B.P.
"I doubt McKay will forget the manner in which he has been treated. I met Tony in 1997. We went to the same church. Whatever his stubbornness in bringing in offensive-minded people, Tony's integrity and character spoke volumes to all the bay area and his team."
HUBERT'S REPLY: Your feelings are shared by a disenchanted multitude. Never have I seen a fired NFL coach so graciously embraced by the dispatching area and its media. In tattered Bucs history, the six Dungy seasons glisten like gold among mud pies.
Whatever happened to Cecil Johnson?
-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.