Ward is repeatedly cited in player surveys as being one of the NFL's borderline dirty players. But he didn't want former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow returning prematurely from a concussion Sept. 26 when the Florida quarterback's helmet slammed into a teammate's leg. Tebow came back to play Saturday against LSU.
"Some guys, we're powerful, and we want to come back quick, not understanding the ramifications of getting hit like that again," Ward said. "I watched a TV special where a high school kid lied to the doctors and said he was ready, and he got hit in a similar way and ended up paralyzed."
While the Steelers' physicality and take-no-abuse personality have rarely changed since the Steel Curtain days of the 1970s, Ward and other players are concerned about studies that reflect the dangers of playing in the NFL _ and, especially, of receiving concussions.
An NFL-commissioned study reported Alzheimer's disease and dementia were diagnosed among former players at a significantly higher rate than the general population. While the NFL cautioned there is no established link between memory disorders and head injuries sustained by former players, the Steelers have been warned by their own doctors for years about the dangers of concussions.
The UPMC Center for Sports Medicine, based in the same complex where the Steelers practice, has studied the effects of concussions on football players for most of this decade. One of its studies determined that a player suffering a second concussion while recovering from an earlier concussion risks permanent brain injury or death, although NFL players recover more rapidly from concussions than do high school players.
"It's something we've known," safety Ryan Clark said, referring to the sport's risks. "It's like telling a boxer, 'Hey, you can get punch drunk.' And he still goes in there and fights 12 rounds as hard as he can. It's what you do, it's who you are. We're blessed with this talent and we play because we love it, but it can be a problem."
Former Steelers physician Julian Bailes, chair of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, co-authored a study four years ago that found players who received multiple concussions are more likely to develop post-career problems such as depression. A UPMC study released in 2002 determined football players who have sustained multiple concussions have a greater risk of developing a concussion than a player who has never had one.
UPMC researchers also have warned there is no such thing as a mild concussion, and that a headache or momentary confusion caused by a hit can be the first sign of a much more significant neurological problem.
"If you're not healed up and ready to play, you can mess yourself up real bad, not only while you're playing but after you're playing as well," Ward said.
Injuries are inevitable is a sport that is violent by nature, and most Steelers players take the attitude that they can only hope that a catastrophic mishap doesn't occur to them. However, players are getting so big, so strong and so fast, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer recently predicted there will be a fatality someday in an NFL game.
The NFL commissioned-study released this season generated enough concern that the NFL Players Association formed a committee headed by former Steelers wide receiver Sean Morey, now of Arizona, to address the issue of head trauma among players.
To guard against athletes playing while still having a concussion, UPMC researchers developed the ImPACT test (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) that Steelers players must pass before they can play again. All 32 NFL teams use the ImPACT test or similar testing, ad the league has becoming increasing strict in regulating helmet-to-helmet hits and fining offenders.
"We know the studies, we know the research that's going on behind it, but if you look at that stuff as a football player, you probably shouldn't even be playing the game, linebacker James Farrior said. "Down the road, after I'm finished, I'll probably worry a little bit more about it, but it's definitely one of the sacrifices you make if you want to play this game."
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu has had seven concussions since his high school days in Oregon, several at Southern California, yet he remains one of the game's best defensive players. His latest concussion occurred last year against the Giants.
Ward would be worried if he had that many concussions himself.
"I can't speak for Troy," Ward said. "But it is a concern. If you're having multiple concussions, you really need to think about 25 years down the line. You could be a fruitcake. When you have one, two, that's part of football. When you have multiples, you've got to think about it."