Whenever people ask me if special teamers (specifically Devin Hester) belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I answer their question with the following scientific yes-no process.
Do special teamers hold roster spots?
Do special teamers earn contracts?
Does the Pro Bowl recognize special teamers?
Does the All Pro team recognize special teamers?
Does the NFL’s all-decade team recognize special teamers?
The Pro Football Hall of Fame honors football players. Anyone who is a "yes" to any of those questions sounds like a football player to me.
Last week I wrote about Devin Hester’s magical rookie season, the one that set the foundation for Hester’s Hall of Fame career. Strike that — the career that WOULD be a Hall of Fame career if the Pro Football Hall of Fame was not biased against special teams.
Consider this: despite being coined as one of the game’s three phases, (allegedly equal in pedigree and importance to offense and defense), special teamers are four of the 316 men in the HOF. That’s 1.3%. Two of those four were Lou "The Toe" Groza, a kicker also listed in the Hall as an offensive lineman, and Bears legend George Blanda, a kicker also listed at quarterback.
That leaves two pure special teamers:
* Placekicker Jan Stenerud, retired 1985, class of 1991
* Punter Ray Guy, retired 1986, class of 2014
That’s it. The Hall has inducted 23 coaches plus another 22 "contributors," including a man named Hugh "Shorty" Ray, the league’s longtime Technical Advisor on Rules and Supervisor of Officials.
Forty-five coaches or contributors in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and two special teamers.
In the immortal words of Lt. Daniels:
Invariably when people debate Hester’s HOF credentials, those who argue that he belongs do so on the notion that he is the greatest return man the game has ever seen. That was the same argument made for Stenerud and Guy, the same argument made for coverage man Steve Tasker.
The implication is that were someone to prove that Hester, Stenerud, Guy, or Tasker were NOT the best at their respective positions, they therefore would not belong in the Hall.
This is tokenism. And it’s got to stop.
To make the Hall, Devin Hester should not have to be considered the greatest return man of all time. Like players at any other position, he should simply need to be considered AMONG the greatest.
Of that there is no debate.
In 1963, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class of 17 Hall of Famers — a group of players, coaches, and contributors. These 17 laid the foundation for the sport’s history. Other players were already worthy of the Hall in 1963, including Sid Luckman, who by 1963 had been retired 13 years yet did not make the Hall until 1965.
The point is, the HOF’s inaugural class was not an end-all-be-all. It simply got the ball rolling.
The NFL needs another inaugural class. The special teams class. Because a de facto banishment of special teams players makes no sense.
We can talk about kickers, punters, and coverage guys another day. I’m down for a debate about my choice of five, and the list should not stop here.
I just think it should start here.
Therefore, these are the five return men I want FOR SURE in an inaugural special teams induction.
5x Pro Bowl, 2x 1st Team All Pro, retired as career leader in combined KR/PR yards
The original return GOAT.
When Woodson retired in 1966, he was the NFL's career leader in combined kick and punt return yards and was second in kick return touchdowns with 5. The man in first was former Olympic medal-winner Ollie Matson, who made the Hall in 1972 as a halfback. The late Woodson, a DB, wasn't so lucky.
Let's get him in the Hall before his grandson, Charles, goes in 2021.
4. Rick Upchurch, Broncos, 1975-1983
4x Pro Bowl, 3x 1st Team All Pro, retired as co-record holder for career PR touchdowns
Upchurch starred on the Orange Crush Broncos teams of the 70s, playing on the 1977 Super Bowl runner up. He led the NFL in punt return yards once and touchdowns three times. He was named to the NFL's all-1980s team.
This 1976 quote from then-Chiefs coach Paul Wiggin sums up not just Upchurch but the power of returners:
"Sometimes in football you reach the point with a guy where respect turns into fear, and I think that was the case today," Wiggin said on a day when Upchurch burned the Chiefs for 137 combined return yards and a 55-yard PR TD.
4x Pro Bowl, 3x 1st Team All Pro, retired as career leader in kick return yards
Here's what was crazy about the early 90s Lions: Barry Sanders wasn't the only speedster to catch.
From 1990 to 1994, Mel Gray was THE return man in the NFL. In that time he made four Pro Bowls and was named 1st Team All Pro three times. He led the league in yards per both punt and kick return in '91, yards per kick return in '94, and scored seven return touchdowns.
Mel's longest return was a 102-yard kick return touchdown in his peak 1994 against... you guessed it... DA BEARS. And yet this highlight reel shows him merely dicing up the Pack and Vikes! Perfect!
Gray wore #23.
There's magic in those digits.
2. Brian Mitchell, Washington, Eagles, Giants, 1990-2003
1x Pro Bowl, 1x 1st Team All Pro, 2nd to Jerry Rice in career all-purpose yards
Other than his great 1995, I don't think Brian Mitchell ever held the NFL's Best Returner Alive belt.
From Mitchell's rookie year in 1990 through 1994, Mel Gray held the belt. Desmond Howard owned 1996. Eric Metcalf was a touchdown machine from 1992 to 1997, with nine on punt returns. Deion Sanders had his own special Deion sphere at punt returner, which extended through 1998.
Michael Bates was a standout in the second half of the 90s. The Greatest Show on Turf grabbed headlines with Tony Horne and Az Hakim. Our own Glyn Milburn dominated in 1999. Michael Lewis showed out in 2002, which was also Year 1 of The Dante Hall Experience.
Hall's BIG year was 2003, when he was on every highlight show for doing things like this:
So it's no surprise that we didn't spend too much time in 2003 talking about the 35-year-old Mitchell, who finished his career that season on the Giants.
Yet Mitchell makes this list because of the greatness of his career, not one particular season. The statistic cited most frequently as proof of that greatness is 23,330, as in 23,330 all-purpose yards, second most in the history of the NFL after only Jerry Rice. Mitchell is first in combined return yards, third in punt return touchdowns with nine, and fifth in non-offensive touchdowns with 13.
Mitchell's career was a study in steady. He scored at least one return touchdown in nine of his 14 seasons, never going back-to-back seasons without one. His single-season high in punt return yards was 600 in 1991 at age 23, and his second best mark was 567 yards in 2002 at age 34.
Mitchell was the Energizer Bunny of return men. I hope the Selection Committee recognizes him.
1. Devin Hester, Bears, Falcons, 2006-2015 (for now)
4x Pro Bowl, 3x 1st Team All Pro, career leader in PR, PR+KR, and non-offensive touchdowns
If you're a Bears fan, or a Hester fan, here's why you don't want tokenism:
It diminishes the term GOAT.
If Devin Hester is The Greatest of All Time yet the All Time pool stays in the shallow end, what good is declaring him the greatest?
He is in fact the greatest because of the names he eclipsed. He is the greatest because he owned the position more than anyone on this list, or anyone not on it. He is the greatest not just because of what WE say about him, but because of what THEY say about him.
I'm talking about these guys:
Brian Mitchell, 2011: "I don't think he needs to do anything else (to make the Hall)."
Gale Sayers, 2011: "Devin Hester deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, no doubt about it."
Deion Sanders, 2014: Devin Hester is "the best ever."
Desmond Howard, 2015: "He has that Barry Sanders factor, where every time he touches the ball you're holding your breath in anticipation of something special happening."
Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, 2015: "The thing people don't understand is that a guy like Devin Hester, he makes it look easy. If you ask anybody who's done it, it ain't easy. He just makes it seem that way, and that's work, buddy."
Mel Gray, 2016: "There's no reason why he shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame."
That's six of the greatest return men ever giving props to the man many of us think is THE greatest ever.
Let's run that word back.
That's the key to the Hall of Fame.
Whether your greatness is encapsulated by a total picture, like Brian Mitchell, or in short and brilliant bursts like Sayers, once you reach that peak your flag is planted forever.
Hester has both: great in bursts, great in the aggregate.
I say he's the greatest. But even if you disagree, then whoever YOU think is the greatest should be in for the same reason.
Because here's the thing about the Hall of Fame: it's a physical space. It's a museum. You walk into this big, dimly lit room in the building in Canton, and there you are, among the busts. The greats of the greats. It's awesome and beautiful.
That space factor, whether busts in a room or names on a list, that matters. The Hall is history. It tells the story of the league. And having the greatest return man ever (or the greatest kicker, or punter, or coverage man) is more important than having the latest in an endless parade of running backs or defensive ends. I need Devin Hester in the Hall more than I need, say, the seventh best quarterback of the 1990s.
So if you think Brian Mitchell is the GOAT, or Dante Hall, or Josh Cribbs, or Billy Johnson, or whomever else, that's fine. The important question is: should that status alone be enough to put them in the Hall?
The answer is yes.
Yet the other question is: should more return men than simply the greatest reach the Hall of Fame?
The answer, as Hester knows, is also yes.
"There are a lot of great guys out there who could have been in the Hall of Fame," Hester said in 2014 after passing Deion for his NFL record 20th non-offensive touchdown.
"At the end of the day, when it's all said and done, hopefully my name will be mentioned. Hopefully I've opened enough eyes where they'll say I have a chance of making it. I've been playing for 10 years and in my first year in the league I sparked rumors about how if I kept up this way I'd be in the Hall of Fame. So I've been hearing the same thing since my rookie year, and I would love to get in."
You and me both, Devin. You and me both.
** AUGUST 25, 2016 UPDATE **
I was on the Score last night discussing this column and all things Hester with Laurence Holmes. Listen with the link here: