Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Hines Ward's Biggest Victory

Whenever you are inclined to gloss over privilege, just look at your own children or parents and ask, "Would I have been allowed to have a relationship with them if I happened to be the wrong color?" Hines Ward, superstar receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was one of the many babies of Asian descent taken away from his mother simply because she was of Asian descent. In his case, he righted the wrong that our court system committed as a second-grader.

This article details Ward's amazing journey, including an Anna Mae He-esque court decision:

Anna Mae He is still with her kidnappers. Will she need to run away too, or might we as a society right this wrong and stop kidnapping babies of Asian descent?

To really bring out the emotions in Ward, one needs only to mention his mother. Ward invariably gets misty-eyed talking about her, as if he can't believe how lucky someone could be to have a mother like his.

"She means everything to me," Ward said.

Kim Young-hee must feel the same way about her son.

Shortly after coming to the United States, she and her husband divorced, leaving her in a country whose culture and language she didn't understand, and with a young son and no way to support him.

Then it got worse.

According to Ward, a court determined she could not suitably raise Hines without being able to speak English or hold a job. As a result, Ward's father and a new stepmother were awarded custody of Hines. It was a devastating blow to Ward's mother, who could have been forgiven for giving up and moving back home to Korea.

Remarkably, she didn't. And when Hines was in the second grade, he ran away from his father and returned to the mother he had never forgotten, and never left again until he went to Georgia to play football.

To raise Hines, Kim Young-hee often worked three jobs nearly around the clock, taking breaks only to sleep for a few hours and to go home to get her son up in the morning and make sure he had dinner.

She washed dishes, cleaned hotel rooms, worked as a cashier. Nothing was for her -- her only concern was making sure her son had clean clothes, food and the best home life she could provide, even if it wasn't a high-income lifestyle.

Ward didn't have a father to lean on -- he says he has no communication with him today -- but he did have direction. Even as his football career took off at Forest Park High near Atlanta, his mother made him concentrate on academics, and Ward received excellent grades.

His mother also taught him about the importance of a work ethic -- lessons he took to the football field where, out of necessity, he played wide receiver, quarterback and running back in college. (A long-forgotten stat: As a quarterback, Ward passed for 413 yards and ran for 56 yards in the Peach Bowl.)

When Ward came to the NFL as a third-round draft pick in 1998 but, in essence, a man without a position, he threw himself into his work. Determined to create a role for himself, he quickly became the NFL's best blocking wide receiver, helping him earn playing time until he became a starter a year later.

Ward's background may explain why he often plays with an edge uncommon for a skill position player. And, perhaps, why his mother kept working her school cafeteria job even after Ward signed his first million-dollar NFL contract.

"My mom never gave up," Ward said. "She did everything she could for me, worked three jobs. She worked her tail off."

Ward's name in Korean is tattooed on his upper right forearm, directly above a smiling Mighty Mouse carrying a football. The smile, he said, reflects how he plays: with ferocity, a will to win but also for fun, another lesson learned from his mother.

"I could never pay my mother back for what she did for me," Ward said.

Props to Aelward from the Fighting 44s for the link.


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