SI Vault
The Long Way Home
May 15, 2006
Steelers receiver Hines Ward grew up a hurt, confused child, adrift between the cultures of his African-American father and Korean mother. Even a Super Bowl MVP award did not give him peace of mind. What he really needed was a little bit of Seoul
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 15, 2006

The Long Way Home

Steelers receiver Hines Ward grew up a hurt, confused child, adrift between the cultures of his African-American father and Korean mother. Even a Super Bowl MVP award did not give him peace of mind. What he really needed was a little bit of Seoul

View CoverRead All Articles

Hines Ward sits in a first-row aisle seat in first class on Korean Air Flight 36 from Atlanta to Seoul, a 7,000-mile journey that he hopes can close the distance between shame and pride. He tries to concentrate on what's playing on the video screen in front of him, the noisy Jim Carrey and T�a Leoni farce Fun with Dick & Jane, but he keeps thinking of that gap. His 574 catches in the NFL have not closed it. Nor have 7,030 receiving yards, 53 touchdowns or four Pro Bowls. Not even a Super Bowl ring and a Super Bowl MVP award. That all brought him closer, but not all the way there.

He looks over at his mother, Kim Young He, asleep in the seat beside him. This is for her, he has said. Long ago he pledged that if he ever made it to the NFL, he would return with his mother to South Korea, where he was born 30 years ago. He had waited until now, though--two months after the Super Bowl--until he was sure the people who had shunned her for marrying a black American GI, the people who had called her a whore and refused to acknowledge the child she was carrying, would have to show her respect instead of scorn. He had waited until a nation that is notoriously cruel to children of mixed marriages would bow to her and treat her in a manner befitting the mother of a homecoming hero.

Pondering his arrival in Seoul as the plane limns the curve of the earth--rivers and mountains and then an ocean all passing beneath him, he admits that he doesn't know what to expect. Off the football field Ward is a taciturn man, and it is easy to mistake his stolidity for meekness. His quiet is actually a sign of determination, a single-mindedness about the matter at hand, whether it's studying videotape of the Pittsburgh Steelers' next opponent, laying a crushing block on a free safety or contemplating his ancestry. And when he speaks, his voice is soft and soothing, an even-toned Southern drawl that tends to lose t's and e's as in, "I'm jus' real 'motional about it," which he says of this trip home. "I'm jus' curious about my people."

He uses the word shame repeatedly when he talks about being half-Korean and growing up in an African-American community with a mother who didn't look or act like the other mothers. About feeling like an outcast in any community--black, white or Asian-American. About being a boy whose eyes permanently marked him as the one thing you never want to be as a kid: different.

As a child Hines never liked to talk about his birthplace. What was Korea, anyway? In Atlanta and Monroe, La., during the 1970s, it was known only as a place where there had been a war, where a few brothers who had enlisted went to serve Uncle Sam. Korea wasn't yet an economic dynamo; no one had heard of Hyundai or Samsung or Kia. It was just a far-off place with too many vowels. Besides, his upbringing had been too confusing--born in Korea, brought by his parents to Atlanta when he was a year old; his father, Hines Sr., leaving his wife in East Point, Ga., to take off for a tour of duty in Germany. When Hines Sr. returned to the U.S., he and Kim divorced, and he convinced a family court that Kim couldn't raise their two-year-old son on her own because she didn't speak English. Hines Jr. was taken to Monroe, La., by his father, where he ended up living with Martha Ward, his paternal grandmother, until he was seven.

During those intervening years Kim would teach herself to speak passable English, work three jobs to pay the rent on a three-room apartment and buy a 12-year-old brown Camaro, and then she would get her boy back. Martha Ward let him go, later telling Hines Sr., "I'm not going to be part of taking a child away from his mama." And little Hines, who had known his mother only as this Asian lady who brought him toys on holidays, went to live with her in Atlanta. Seven years old, a black child in the South, he would duck down in his seat when his mom drove him to school so the other kids wouldn't see him, "because I didn't want them to know she was my mom." When he looked back at the car, he saw that she was crying.

Later came a shame about feeling that shame, setting in motion a cycle of self-loathing and doubt. "I was lost. I didn't really know who I was," says Ward of his childhood. "I didn't have guidance. I was so angry with my father for not being there when I needed him the most. And I was so ashamed of my mother--and for not understanding my culture."

Now Ward glances at his mother, sitting beside him. He turns off the in-flight movie and sits up higher in his seat. This flight began 10 hours ago. This journey began a long, long time before that.

His mother prepared in-flight meals for Eastern Airlines, an eight-hour shift of slapping cooked-to-death roast beef into rectangular plastic serving trays. She would finish at 2 a.m. and be home by 3 to find Hines Jr. asleep in the living room of their apartment in Forest Park, a suburb of Atlanta. All the lights in the tiny apartment would still be on, the white fluorescence reflecting off the tile floor, the china cabinet, the silver Korean ornaments hanging on the walls. Hines hated those Korean decorations, just as he resented having to take off his shoes in the house. At his friends' houses, his American friends' houses, the kids wore shoes indoors and had pictures of cowboys and farmhouses on the walls. Other kids would tease him, pull the corners of their eyes back, call him Blackie Chan or Bruce Leroy, even taunt him during pickup basketball games. "Being teased by his peers because his mother is Asian--coming up wasn't easy for him," says Corey Allen, a longtime friend.

"He used to talk about [being biracial]," says his wife, Simone, who has known Hines since they were in 10th grade. "My mother is white, and my father is black. I went to an all-black high school, and we had a lot of conversations about that stuff."

After returning from a shift at the airport, Kim would lay a blanket over her boy, turn off the lights and put on a pot of green tea, which she would sip at a folding table in the kitchen before heading back out at 4 a.m. to start her second job, as a cashier at a Supervalu convenience store across the street. It was up to Hines to rouse himself at 6:30 and get to school. He never missed a day, and he graduated from Forest Park High with perfect attendance.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6