Steelers will release WR Hines Ward

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Hines Ward’s constant, ear-to-ear smile tucked behind a black facemask has been a lasting image for Pittsburgh 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 sometime in the next two weeks said president Art Rooney II on the team’s website on Wednesday.

“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 will finish his Steelers career with 1,000 catches, 12,083 yards and 85 receiving touchdowns. He helped Pittsburgh to three AFC championships and a pair of Super Bowl wins.

The former “Dancing With the Stars” champion _ who spent last weekend working the red carpet at the Oscars _ doesn’t appear ready to put away his cleats just yet, however.

While saying “this isn’t how I wanted this chapter of my career to end,” Ward vowed to return for a 15th season next fall.

“I do feel that I still have more football left in me and I am looking forward to playing in the NFL, again, this upcoming season,” 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 blue-collar fan base of one of the league’s marquee franchises.

Ward was pretty good at catching passes too, particularly in the postseason. He helped the Steelers to their fifth Super Bowl in 2006 catching five passes for 123 receiving 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, who turns 36 next week, back at $4 million next season. The Steelers are in the midst of a roster-wide salary purge and a youth movement at receiver.

By the end of the 2011 season, Ward found himself on the sidelines for long stretches as youngsters Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown turned into quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite targets.

Both receivers topped 1,100 yards receiving and combined for 10 touchdowns, while Ward had just 46 catches for 381 yards and two scores. It was the worst reception total since his rookie year (15).

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