LATROBE, Pa. -- Hines Ward was beaming. His trademark smile was as wide as the goal posts at Chuck Noll Field on the campus of St. Vincent College, where he had just completed his first official football practice in more than six months.
Ward's familiar No. 86 white practice jersey had grass and mud stains across the shoulder pads and streaked through the back. The veteran receiver was taken off the physically unable to perform list earlier Monday by the Pittsburgh Steelers after being cleared by doctors to join his teammates following offseason thumb surgery.
Asked how he felt, the 14-year veteran said, "Not bad for a 35-year-old guy."
His first catch of practice was vintage Ward: sliding across the goal line while cradling the ball during a red-zone drill.
"I caught that one for my first of the day, and I was like, 'Wow,' " Ward said. "It felt good just to get down, and for me, I had to use my thumb on that, and it felt good."
With the retirement of Randy Moss and with Terrell Owens' status in limbo, Ward is the leader among active wide receivers in career receptions with 954. He also ranks second behind Derrick Mason -- who just signed with the New York Jets -- in career receiving yards among active wideouts with 11,702.
During training camp, coach Mike Tomlin perpetually has shown little willingness to praise specific players during brief post-practice media sessions.
He made an exception for Ward, the longest-tenured and third-oldest Steeler.
"He looked like Hines, and that's what we expect," Tomlin said. "It was great to have him back out here, not only in terms of what he's capable of but his outlook and energy he brings to the game. He's a leader for us, of course."
Ward, who said he played almost all of last season with a torn ligament in his thumb, was eased back into practice during his first day. He only lined up for roughly half as many reps as the rest of the first-team offense.
"I needed a starting point," he said, "and today was a good starting point. Tomorrow, I'll get a little more reps."
But at this stage of his career, Ward doesn't need the extended working time anyway. He hasn't practiced on a Wednesday during the season -- often the most strenuous workouts of the week -- for years, a homage paid to his veteran status by Tomlin.
But even when Ward isn't fully participating in practice, he immerses himself into the session, taking part in huddles and discussions, observing what he can about the offense and encouraging younger players.
Monday, following a play that was run after Ward was done for the day, he ran out to congratulate first-year receiver Wes Lyons for staying on his block.
"He's one of the great guys in this game, and one of the great leaders who everyone looks up to," said second-year receiver Antonio Brown, who has been the beneficiary of the extra practice reps created by Ward's absence. "Any time you can have him back on the field, you can learn from him mentally. And seeing what he does physically, he's going to be key for me that way, too."
Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are just the latest Ward proteges to come through Pittsburgh. The two had solid rookie seasons in 2010, and there are whispers that one of them soon will take Ward's job.
But people have been saying that about Ward since he was a third-round draft pick out of Georgia in 1998. The following two years, the Steelers took wide receivers in the first round. But Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress didn't last long. Neither did high draft picks Antwaan Randle El nor Santonio Holmes.
Every time it appears as if Pittsburgh is grooming a replacement for Ward, the former college quarterback keeps on producing.
"Yes, I'm getting older," Ward said, "but I don't think the Steelers would have given me an extension on my contract if they didn't think I couldn't play football still."
Two years ago, the team gave Ward a $22 million contract through 2013. When he signed it, there probably weren't too many who believed Ward would play out the deal through its completion.
It still might be a long shot, but now, people aren't counting out Ward.
"Hines, he's never been the fastest guy in the world," said Mike Wallace, the Steelers' other starting wideout. "His game is not really about speed; his game is about knowing where to be and knowing how to sit in defenses and read the defenses. That's what he does, and that's something I think he can keep doing as long as he wants."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press