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A salute to Devin Hester's magical rookie year

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For the 10-year anniversary of the 2006 Super Bowl Bears, Jack Silverstein is digging into the history of the best post-'85 Bears team. Today he looks back at the rookie year of Devin Hester, who in 2006 set an NFL record for return touchdowns in a season while setting the foundation for his Hall of Fame career.

In 2006, Devin Hester set the foundation for his Hall of Fame career.
In 2006, Devin Hester set the foundation for his Hall of Fame career.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Every touchdown started with a pause.

When I close my eyes and picture him, that's what I see. Before the burst, before the high step, I see Devin Hester's pause. Typically this was the slightest of pivots to change direction, a Neo-dodging-bullets approach to returning kicks.

That was the pause on the Super Bowl return, when on the 16 yard line he pushed off the turf with his right foot, changed direction, slowed, pushed with his left foot, changed direction again, and then entered his sprint.

Other times the pause was a nearly imperceptible shift of balance as he sized up his route to the end zone and dusted confused defenders like Road Runner.

On the field goal return against the Giants, the pause was a bluff, a con, that devil-may-care smirk Paul Newman dropped in movies before he ate all the eggs or set down four of a kind.

No matter the circumstance, the pause belied the calculation. It masked the speed to come.

As I embark on this journey to re-live the masterful 2006 season, the name that immediately pops to mind is Devin Hester. When I think of the defense, I actually think of the 2005 team first, probably because the offense was plodding and the special teams were serviceable. I think I have more defensive memories from '05 than '06 -- the Carolina sack-attack game, back-bending blitz mania on Brett Favre, the pick-sixes from Peanut and Nate and Mike Brown, Urlacher tossing Mike Vick around Soldier Field like the Cincinnati Zoo ape and that intrepid toddler.

To me, Hester epitomizes the difference between the '06 team and the '05 team: flashy brilliance mixed with popular appeal. An adrenaline shot to our heart that was the dagger in theirs.

Hester scored seven times in the 2006 season, yet it felt like he did it every week, didn't it? It's weird: Hester's brilliance is historicized on YouTube for future generations to behold, and yet the acts for which he is most famous (his touchdowns) cannot be properly appreciated without everything that happened around then.

After all, a five-year-old Bears fan in 2006 is an in-his-prime Bears fan of 15 in 2016. And this young fan can watch every Hester return touchdown again and again, from the season opener in Green Bay to his one-and-only with Atlanta.

Yet if you only know Hester from the touchdowns, you don't really KNOW Hester. Because the Hester experience is not just about the touchdowns. It's about the suspense. The anticipation of the ball in his hands. The way folks stopped grilling and set down the paper and came in from the kitchen and told the person on the phone to "hang on one sec because Hester's back deep."

The Hester experience was about the pause.

And you can't get that strictly on YouTube.

During training camp of 2013, I did a series of interviews asking Bears players for their "Welcome to the NFL moment." This was open to their interpretation — answers ranged from seeing their jersey hanging in their locker for the first time (Tillman) to lining up on the practice field (Forte) to getting fake released after being late to a meeting (Nate Collins).

Hester's moment, he started, was "the first game of my rookie year."

To which I immediately thought, Of course, the touchdown against Green Bay. His first NFL score. Makes sense.

Nope.

"The welcome moment was when the jets flew over my head," Hester told me. "It was a new feeling. It's what the NFL is all about. A real football player will tell you that those jets mean something. I don't know what it is. It gives you chills from your pinky toenail to the last hair on your head. When those jets fly over your head, you know it's football time."

THAT'S how I felt watching Devin Hester line up to return a kick: like the jets were flying over my head.

Watching Hester return kicks in 2006 and 2007 was like watching Sammy Sosa hit home runs in 1998 and 1999: every time up felt like another was coming. And just as Sosa's 63 home runs in '99 can't touch his 66 home runs in '98 because of the playoff implications in the latter, so too did Hester's brilliance sometimes feel empty in 2007 compared to the game-winningness of his mad dashes in '06.

I'll give you an example.

The first time Hester felt like a legend was the Super Bowl. We’re talking legend in the old timey sense, when explorers would come ashore after months at sea and the folks on land would greet them, saying, "Word of your deeds has traveled far and wide!"

But the first time he felt like a Hall of Famer — like someone who could carry us to great heights all on his own, like someone about whom I would one day tell my children — was eight weeks earlier against the Rams.

That Monday night, December 11, 2006, the Bears arrived in St. Louis as the NFC’s best team. At 10-2, we had clinched the division and were in a three-way tie for the best record in the league. Our offense, though sagging, was still the best it had been under Lovie Smith. Our defense, of course, was masterful.

And we had the league’s new favorite weapon. Number 23. Devin Hester.

One week earlier, Hester scored his fourth return touchdown of the year, a 45-yard punt return at Soldier Field versus the Vikings.

"The wind was picking up and it was a bad situation, and he pooched the ball and (it) kind of hit on the field and kind of rolled," Hester said after the game. "I had enough time to pick it up and run, and kind of gave a right jab and brought it back around to the left, and my teammates picked up their guys and I got into the end zone."

That game, instead of just returning punts as he’d done all year, the Bears finally let Hester return kicks. He’d returned three in 11 weeks and returned three against Minnesota. (I am still stunned it took that long.)

Against the Rams he returned four kicks for 225 yards and two touchdowns, tying and then breaking the league’s single-season record for touchdown returns.

"Let’s see what he can do with a kickoff?" announcer Tony Kornheiser asked rhetorically after Hester ran a first quarter kick back 94 yards for his record-tying fifth return touchdown. "How’d you like what you just saw?"

That TD gave the Bears a 7-6 lead. In the fourth quarter, with the team up 35-20, Hester struck again.

96 yards. Touchdown.

After both returns, Kornheiser argued for Hester as rookie of the year.

"Who’s had more of an impact on the league this year than this guy?" Kornheiser said after the second touchdown. "He’s saved the Bears in games. He’s the x-factor for the Bears. He’s scary every time he gets his hands on the ball. Do you penalize him? It’s sort of like baseball, where you say ‘I don’t want to make a DH the MVP.’ Do you penalize a guy because he’s essentially a returner? Or do you say, ‘He’s the rookie who’s had the most impact’?"

In that minute of announcing, Kornheiser summed up the now ten-year debate about Hester’s Hall of Fame credentials. Is he out because he’s "only a returner"? Or is he in because he’s the greatest returner who has ever played?

To me that's a no-brainer. The only reason Hester is not considered a first ballot HOFer is the Hall's bias against special teams.

But we'll leave that discussion for another day. For now, just close your eyes and picture that blur of a 23 streaking across your screen. Or, should you have been lucky enough to attend a game in which Hester scored, picture him soaring through your field of vision.

After we beat the Rams, the Tribune's Fred Mitchell wrote about Hester's explosion onto the national scene and the impact he was having on opposing coaches. Hester's perspective on the treatment he would receive from kickers was prescient:

"This is the NFL and teams are not going to bow down to just one player," Hester said. "I think throughout the rest of the season they are going to continue to kick to me."

Sure enough, Hester had a great all-around return game the next week against Tampa Bay, was decent in the finale against the Packers, and was brilliant in the divisional playoff game vs. Seattle, where a 66-yard punt return touchdown (that would have given the Bears a 4th-quarter lead) was nullified by an illegal block.

Then of course he had the Super Bowl return.

And 2007.

And 2010.

And 2011.

And 2013.

And you get the idea.

Last month, the Falcons released Hester on the heels of toe surgery. He is 33. He is unemployed. He is one of the greatest athletes I have ever seen.

I still see him when I close my eyes. That pivot. That pause.

And then poof — he's gone.