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Ward took the demotion in stride and relished the role of elder statesmen. Wallace, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders credited Ward for helping mature both on and off the field.

All three players hoped Ward would come back for one more go, but understood they were nearing the end of an era.

“We all know the direction in which we’re going with the receiving corps,” Sanders said last month. “But, like I said, Hines is still a great addition, just the knowledge he brings to the room. You can’t pay for that. You can’t coach that. He just brings that well being of how to be a pro into the room.”

Now the corner locker he’s held for more than a decade is vacant.

“Enjoyed playing with mvp86hinesward learned a lot! Was a great mentor for me! You define a “Steeler”,” Brown tweeted after the announcement.

In a franchise built on the churning legs of Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier and Jerome Bettis, Ward blossomed into one of the league’s most reliable receivers while serving as a security blanket for everyone from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox to Roethlisberger. Ward has six 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and just missed two more, posting 975 in both 2005-06 and 2006-07. He also returned eight kicks for 210 yards.

Hines‘ accomplishments are numerous,” Rooney said, “and he will always be thought of as one of the all-time great Steelers.

“We wish him nothing but the best.”

In his last game as a Steeler, a 29-23 postseason, overtime loss to the Denver Broncos on Jan. 8, Ward did not record a catch.

The final pass thrown to him in a Steeler uniform came on Pittsburgh’s final drive when Roethlisberger tried to hit Ward running down the sideline. Denver defensive back Champ Bailey knocked it away, leaving Ward to face an uncertain future.

He may end his career in a different city, but Ward left little doubt where his heart lies.

“I gave my heart and soul for (the fans) every down and I will always bleed black-and-gold,” Ward said.

Now, he’ll have to do it wearing another uniform if he wants to play again.