I openly, and shamelessly, admit to being a longtime Steelers fan. And over the last 15 years, Hines Ward has, hands down, been one of my favorite NFL players. When the organization announced yesterday that they would be releasing the 14-year veteran, four-time Pro Bowler, multiple Steelers receiving record holder, and Super Bowl XL MVP, I got a little choked up inside.

Everyone deals with the various lowly moments life sometimes throws them in their own unique way. I decided to boot up Madden NFL 2012, and power through the most recent NFL season as the Steelers in franchise mode, for a virtual representation of what Hines Ward’s next season might look like had he remained a Steeler. Unfortunately, EA Sports and Tiburon apparently don’t think Hines should be playing in the NFL for any team beyond this year.

No matter how many simulated seasons I tried, the game forced me to watch him retire at the end of the first Madden 12 franchise mode season. Bumping up his stats to a more youthful state and winning a Super Bowl didn’t change the end result either. The paid “one more year” DLC “perk” has been stripped from this year’s edition, so I couldn’t even slip John Riccitiello a few green backs to help my cause if I wanted to, and believe me, the Psycho Ward sap in me wanted to.

In a 2009 ESPN interview, Hines shared his thoughts on the Madden release that year, saying:

“Seeing myself for the first time in a video game was exciting to me … The guy on the screen looks almost exactly like me. But to me, the big thing is how realistic the game is getting.”

He went on to add his thoughts on the effect of John Madden co-signing the game, stating that he felt the endorsement would motivate the “guys who actually make it every year [to] really buy into the fact that they need to make it as realistic as possible.”

The character may look like you Hines, but that’s where the push for realism ends. One can only assume that whatever excitement he felt after seeing himself in digital form for the first time will be equally rivaled by the heartache that sets in after he gazes upon the last.

His most recent statement to fans, via his official Facebook page, clearly illustrates that the 35 year-old wide-out feels he still has something left in the tank.

This isn’t how I wanted this chapter of my career to end. I did everything in my power to remain a Steeler and finish what I started here 14 years ago. I want to thank the organization, my teammates and coaches and everyone who made my run as a Steeler the best years of my life. To Mr. Rooney, thank you for allowing me to play for one of the greatest organizations in the world. To my fans and in particular, Steeler Nation, thank you for your support and all the great memories. I gave my heart and soul for you every down and I will always bleed black and gold. I do feel that I still have more football left in me and I am looking forward to playing in the NFL, again, this upcoming season. – HINES

Maybe EA will hear his plea and patch his 2012 exit out of the game in the name of realism. For now, though, Madden 12 owners will have one season left to 86 guard-dropping, would-be defenders, and salsa dance (with the stars) in the back of the Steelers end zone. After that, we’ll probably have to purchase Madden 13 and attempt to woo him away from the (it pains me to say this) Baltimore Ravens.

But that nightmare is for another day. Today we honor Hines Ward’s legacy as a Pittsburgh Steeler and cross our fingers for an in-game anti-retirement solution that sticks. One watch of the video below, and you’ll see, that in his prime, Hines Ward was more complete than any receiver the Steelers currently have on their roster heading into next season. He lead with a smile, blocked with heart, and ran crisp routes with enough speed and athleticism to blow by, or jump over, defenders for the score. He will be missed. Until Canton, Hines, stay classy.

Update: At 12PM EST, on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2012, Hines Ward ended his 14 year NFL career the same way he started it — as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Assuming this sticks, Madden 12 is possibly our last chance to play as Ward.

Here is Hines Ward’s emotional retirement announcement via Bleecher Report: