There's plenty of cause for emotion--he's a Pittsburgh hero. He had played wide receiver for the team for fourteen years. I couldn't remember the black and gold without Hines Ward. The man is a four-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl champion, the MVP of Super Bowl XL, the Steelers' all time leader in receiving touchdowns, receiving yards, and receptions. He could catch. He could lay guys out (from the receiver position!). He got under the skin of the opposing team's players exactly the way we, the fans, would do it ourselves. He was the perfect embodiment of Pittsburgh football, of black and gold culture. And he did it all with that infectious smile.
I love Hines Ward for all of that. But even when added up, those accolades don't account for why he means so much to me. Do I love the way he played? Did I jump out of my seat and go crazy when he knocked Ed Reed into Neverland on a Monday night in 2007? Did I literally thank God every time the man somehow found a hole in the defense's zone scheme for a first down? Did I wave my Terrible Towel every time he touched the ball?Absolutely.
But this is about more than football.
Let me take you back to sixth grade first.
I'm eleven years old. It's the first day I'm ever wearing football pads. I'm nervous because I don't know what I'm doing. I'm excited because I feel like a gladiator, like I'm living out my dreams. The coach decides to introduce us to the world of football with Oklahoma's--a drill where two players lie on their backs, in the grass, hands on their face mask. When the whistle blows, they have to spring up as fast as they can, turn around, and hit the other kid into next week.
Gladiator stuff. I can't wait.
It's my turn. I lie down and wrench my fingers around my face mask. All I see is blue sky. This is the American Dream--green grass on my back and in between my cleats, summer sun gleaming off my football helmet. I really should have been more worried about the kid across from me who had already been playing football for three years and I think was taking HGH in fifth grade.
Whistle blows. I spring up. Before I can fully turn around, I feel a freight train plow into my rib cage. The air escapes my lungs like it would a popped balloon. The first thing I see when I pick myself out of the dirt is that kid's jagged teeth bared back as he cackled, supremely amused at treating me like a tee ball. I limp over to join the other players. He approaches me and puts his helmet right up to mine, his eyes almost crossed.
"This is America, you fucking chink. Get used to it."
Being half-Korean--in my case, looking Asian (well, Asian-ish) but living white(ish)--has its unique set of challenges.
I could tell you about the time in fourth grade we had to write down what we would do if we could be President of the United States, and kids told me my answer didn't count because an Asian could never be President. I believed them for a long time.
Or the time in seventh grade when, on one of many excursions as third wheel to my best friend and his latest arm candy, I overheard her friends talking about how they would never want to date an Asian. And I believed them for a long time, too.
I could tell you about the hundreds of times I've been asked if I'm Chinese or if I speak Chinese, the "ching-chong-wong" slurs spoken at me, the random strangers at malls or festivals or ice skating rinks who would go out of their way to harass me for being Asian, the thousands of times I have felt utterly out of place because of the shape of my eyes and the color of my hair.
There was also the time I was at a Korean youth retreat, walking down the sidewalk with a couple of my friends who were also half-Korean with white fathers, who also went to white schools, who also were white-washed culturally. As we approached a group of Korean kids, we could hear them switch from speaking in English to speaking in Korean as they passed us by. I looked back to catch them stealing glances, laughing.
Since white people were always pointing out my Asian-ness, I had always thought there would be at least some sanctuary with Asian company. The number of times, though, I've had an Asian person look at me and not even realize I'm Asian has become too many to count.
And do you know how frustrating it is to be Korean, grow up in a Korean church, and not know how to speak the language? I'd feel like a failure every week when some Korean lady would say something to me, and I could only stare blankly and stammer out some broken phrase, hoping I didn't sound like a complete idiot. I had to deal with the look of disappointment or pity or both on her face as she'd go on her way.
I hated myself and my ethnicity. I hated being a half-breed. I asked God, over and over again, why I was born with my mom's brown eyes instead of my dad's hazel eyes, or her black hair instead of his blonde hair. I was paranoid of everyone. I suspected everyone in my life, even my close friends, of looking down on me for being or looking Asian. At the same time, I felt inferior to my Korean friends who had two Korean parents who never let them lose the language--they were real Koreans. I was a fake. I only knew very basic Korean phrases, plus the words for "stupid" and "fart" and "pee." I didn't yell Korean words when I got mad like they would do--instead, my Pittsburgh accent would get thicker.
I walked through most of my life feeling like being half-Korean was a curse, like it had cut my legs out from under me. I felt like I could never fully assimilate with the white crowd or the Korean crowd. It was a destructive lie to believe that neither side wanted me. But I believed it. For over twenty years of my life, I believed it.
Until I realized that Hines Ward was half-Korean. That his mom was Korean like mine. That he didn't sound Korean--he had a southern accent. That he didn't know much of the Korean language, either. I was in college when I realized this. I heard him speak out in advocacy for kids like him and like me, the half-breeds who struggled to fit in, who got made fun of by whites and minorities alike.
When Hines hoisted the Lombardi trophy at Super Bowl XL, just voted the MVP of the game, he shattered the lies I had come to believe about myself--that I would always be less than. Less than good enough for everyone in my life. In that moment, there was nobody that Hines was less than. Nobody.
So you see, it's because of Hines Ward that for the first time in my entire life, I felt proud to be half-Korean.
I no longer had to feel second-rate or like an experiment gone wrong.
He shattered the ceiling I had built for myself, the one that I had painted on in large letters, "YOU WILL NEVER BE LIKE THEM. YOU WILL NEVER BE GOOD ENOUGH."
He helped me find peace with me.
So yeah, I cried when he retired. And I still wear his jersey almost every single week of the season. I swell with pride every time I see him on TV or in a highlight reel.
He left us all with an amazing football career. He broke records, won trophies. He played the game the way the Steelers from the 70's would want to play--tough, physical, down-and-dirty, blue-collar football. He leaves an incredible football legacy in his wake in Pittsburgh.
But for me, he'll forever be the guy who gave me legs to walk around in this world for the first time, proud of who I was. Who I am.
Thank you, Hines. You have no idea how much you've changed my life.