April 14, 2006 — -- Pittsburgh Steelers star receiver Hines Ward is grateful for the celebrity that being Super Bowl MVP has brought him, and how it's helping him champion a cause very near to his heart.
Ward, the son of a Korean mother and African-American father, is well aware of the prejudice biracial children suffer in his native Korea. Last week he and his mother went back home for the first time.
"As we touched down and my mother and I stepped off the plane, it was just very overwhelming, just all the media attention that we got, the banners, people screaming my name," Ward said. "It brought a smile to my mom's face."
Ward said he was surprised by the reception because biracial children are shunned and treated like pariahs in Korea. But because of his superstar status as an American athlete, Koreans treated him like a long-lost son, making him an honorary citizen of Seoul, inviting him to tea with the president and giving him a tour of the royal palace.
"I wanted to get to the roots of my own culture and learn more about my heritage," Ward said. "Being over there, I wasn't expecting to be the great hope for biracial kids."
But for many of the 35,000 biracial Koreans, he already is. More than a quarter drop out of school before the ninth grade.
Ward's presence has made a tremendous impact. Editorials are calling for tolerance, and new laws are being proposed to protect their rights.
"I don't want them to see him as famous but see him as one of us, too," said Tina, a biracial Korean. "And helping people like us stand up in the world."
When Ward was a toddler, he and his family moved back to the United States. Soon his parents divorced, and his father got custody. But his mother stayed in America and worked three minimum-wage jobs. And when he was 7, Ward went to live with her in suburban Atlanta.
"It was a rocky start," he recalled. "The communication that my mother and I both had was very slim. I really couldn't understand what she was saying, and I got frustrated at times. I remember as a child calling my mother stupid because she couldn't help me with my schoolwork."
But by the time he was 11, Ward said, he understood what his mother had done for him.
"She could have easily taken me back to Korea and made a good living for herself, but she understood the racism that I would probably take on and the hardship that I would probably have in Korea," he said. "So she sacrificed her own life working that minimum-wage job just so I could have a better life here."
That life has turned out better than his wildest dreams. Ward knows his life has been transformed, and he said he hopes that many other lives will be changed as well.
Ward said he's going to return to Korea in May to start the Helping Hands Foundation, building on the work he's already done to improve the lives of mixed-race children in Korea and around the world.
"Maybe the next Tiger Woods or the next Hines Ward is sitting there in Korea," he said, "but they never give them the opportunity to go out and excel in life and to do well because they are biracial kids."