*Pittsburgh Steelers star Hines Ward has been crowned champion of “Dancing with the Stars,” taking home the mirror ball trophy after beating Kirstie Alley in the final.

The 35-year-old NFL star and partner Kym Johnson emerged victorious during the 12th season finale Tuesday night, and the athlete admitted he hadn’t expected to make it to the end of the contest.

“You know, starting this competition, I never thought I’d be in the finals,” he said. “But I owe it all to Kym. She’s an amazing teacher, and I want to thank the judges for giving us the constructive criticism to help me get better each week. Also, I want to thank all the fans.”

His commitment was especially evident after Johnson suffered a serious neck injury during rehearsals two weeks ago. The couple triumphantly returned to the dance floor, earning perfect scores for their performance and drawing tears from Ward, Johnson and judge Carrie Ann Inaba.

“I’m so impressed with you, the way you partnered with her through that routine,” Inaba said. “The connection was beyond what we ask for in a dance routine.”

Through misty eyes, Ward said, “I was just elated that she was out there dancing three days after that horrific injury that she just had.”

The couple earned five perfect scores for their final six dances.

“It’s special,” Ward said, glittery trophy in hand. “With football, it takes all 53 guys. With this mirrorball, it was just Kym and I together in the studio putting in the hours. I’m just glad I didn’t let her down.”

Professional athletes have taken the “Dancing” title six times in the past 12 seasons. Besides Ward, the other athletic “Dancing” champs are NFL star Emmitt Smith, speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and gymnast Shawn Johnson.

Football stars Jason Taylor, Warren Sapp and Jerry Rice were runners-up on the show, as was Olympic skater Evan Lysacek.