TAMPA — It seems to be a position fit for a diva.
For Anquan Boldin to pout, and Randy Moss to quit.
Or maybe it is a position built for a drama queen.
For Chad Johnson to preen, and Terrell Owens to whine.
And so, when confronted with Hines Ward, the question is obvious:
What's a tough guy like you doing at a position like this?
Receivers are like the sports cars of the NFL. Quick, lithe and fragile. So maybe they're built tougher than placekickers, but you suspect they might hide from a punter or two.
All of which explains why Ward has become evil personified in the NFL. It's like he is Dick Butkus catching passes over the middle. Conrad Dobler blocking on the outside. It has been left to Ward to bring nasty downfield.
"I don't know why people hate me. I have a great smile. I'm always happy," Ward said sweetly from his podium at media day Tuesday. "Why would they hate me? I'm not a bad guy."
A few years ago, a Sports Illustrated poll of NFL players listed Ward as the fifth dirtiest guy in the league. Which was an improvement — or a decline, depending on your perspective — from a previous poll when Ward came in second.
His exact finish isn't the important thing. It's the company he was keeping in the polls. There were defensive backs and linebackers. A good number of offensive linemen and a couple of defensive tackles. But of all the players identified in the two different polls, Ward was the only receiver listed.
"It's because he hits people in the mouth," Pittsburgh defensive lineman Nick Eason said. "I love the guy. He plays with a lot of energy and he's always smiling. But he's not hitting me in the mouth."
So what, specifically, has Ward's opponents so riled up? The way he blocks, for one thing. Which is to say, without fear or compassion. It's the way he blindsides defenders. It's the way he goes until the echo of the whistle.
"Guys aren't used to receivers laying hits on them like he does," Steelers practice squad receiver Martin Nance said. "If it was an offensive lineman, we wouldn't be talking about whether he hits people too hard."
And perhaps that is the secret to his unpopularity. That Ward brings a different personality to his job. The world applauds a tough quarterback. And nasty linebackers get some of the best endorsement deals.
But no one expects to be taken out by a guy who is supposed to run away for a living.
"I don't subscribe to some of the suggestions that you have out there," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He is just a physical football player who plays the game the way it is supposed to be played. He is a football player first and a wide receiver second. … He is willing to do whatever to help us win.
"These are attributes that I appreciate, and any true football fan should as well."
To be fair, Ward has had his share of questionable hits. This season alone, he was fined $5,000 for unnecessary roughness against Baltimore and $10,000 for a blow to a defender's head against Jacksonville. And that doesn't even include the vicious shot that broke the jaw of Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers, knocking the rookie out for the season.
"I didn't go in saying I was going to break this guy's jaw. I was just playing the game. It's unfortunate that it happened. I apologize that it happened," Ward said. "But I'm not going to apologize for the way I play. Because when I go across the middle, nobody is going to apologize for hitting me and knocking me out. So why should I apologize to those guys?
"People can say I hit you when you're not looking. I'm not going to tap you on the shoulder and make you look at me before I hit you. This is football. People have dislikes. Maybe they don't like my smile. Maybe they just don't like life. I really don't care what people think about me negatively. It's not going to change the way I am."
His image has grown so large, it sometimes obscures that Ward is one of the greatest receivers of his generation. He is a four-time Pro Bowl selection who has passed Lynn Swann and John Stallworth on Pittsburgh's all-time receiving list. He was the MVP in Pittsburgh's last Super Bowl win, and he is Ben Roethlisberger's only dependable weapon.
All of this for a guy who is neither particularly large (he's 6 feet, 205 pounds) nor extremely quick. He is nothing like Arizona wunderkind Larry Fitzgerald. Ward is built more in the mold of a Cris Carter. One of the brightest players on the field, with a knack for finding holes and exploiting defenses.
Maybe it's because he has always had to do the little things to get by. Back in his college days at Georgia, Ward split time among quarterback, running back, receiver and punt returner. He lasted until the third round of the draft, and even the Steelers were unsure of what they were getting when he came on board.
More than a decade later, Ward, 32, is making a pretty good case for the Hall of Fame. By the time he retires, the numbers will certainly be in the right neighborhood.
And, by then, the reputation should be on his side. He has missed only six games in 11 seasons and will probably suit up for Super Bowl XLIII two weeks after suffering an MCL sprain in the AFC Championship Game.
"I know my coaches love what I bring to this game. I know the good things I do in the community. That's all that really matters," Ward said. "The borderline: Am I dirty, am I good? I like the people who think I'm good.
"The people who think I'm bad? I'm sorry."
Maybe tough doesn't look so bad on a receiver.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]