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An ode to Devin Hester, the most “ridiculous” returner in NFL history

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Hester made special teams in Chicago a main event. Now, as he plans to hang up his cleats and as his star slowly begins to fade into memory, his unparalleled accomplishments won’t soon be forgotten.

Seattle Seahawks v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Everything Devin Hester did in his NFL career somehow simultaneously personified grace and schizophrenic mayhem. When weaving in between defenders effortlessly on returns, as if he possessed eyes in the back of his head, everyone watching - whether it be the casual fan, or, coaches who had been around professional football for years and had supposedly seen everything - sat in disbelief and wonder.

There’s no better way to describe what Hester brought to the game, than controlled chaos. That unique talent is what made Hester so rare. When he burst onto the scene in 2006 for the Chicago Bears, no one in their right mind could have foreseen a career that would span 11 years across four organizations - eight seasons of which, with Chicago.

That storied career likely comes to an end after two games with the Seattle Seahawks in this year’s playoffs, but not before recognizing his unbelievable impact.

Said career, by the end, has Hester sitting alone at the top with the most total return touchdowns of all-time (20), the most punt return touchdowns (14), and the most scores in a single year (six) in that magical 2006 debut. All records that with changing special teams rules taking away chances for returners in the modern era, will be difficult for anyone to surpass.

Leadership at Halas Hall knew Hester was a game-breaking talent after watching him during his college years at the University of Miami. It’s why they felt the need to spend a second-round pick on a guy they felt would change the game in the 2006 NFL Draft. Not even the Bears could predict the other-worldly extent he evolved into at the professional level.

No one could see this kind of success on the horizon, except perhaps Hester, who as he quickly proved, could almost see the future any time he touched the ball, given his patented, unmatched patience.

Conceivably some would call it arrogance, but with Hester, the confidence and metaphorical crystal ball in his mind, was warranted. He knew it too.

It was evident every time he sat in the Soldier Field end-zone awaiting a return while dancing to music, most notably to ‘Soulja Boy’ blaring over the PA system, all playing to the crowd. Envisioning an electric return in his mind while as calm and collected as ever.

You could see a personal example of this fortune telling, when Hester discussed his career record-breaking return touchdown in 2014 with the Atlanta Falcons, with the former player that many drew heavy comparisons to him by the time his career was rolling into the sunset. A man that everyone knew Hester was honoring with each and every opportunity for a famed high-step trot to the end-line coined by his role model.

That individual was of course Hall Of Fame extraordinaire, Deion Sanders, who became Hester’s NFL mentor and iconic example.

“I told you I was gonna do it,” says Hester here.

The emotion of that moment is still palpable. The pride and joy of what Hester made a career of - humiliating NFL special teamers - still resonating with Sanders and all who had the pleasure of watching him grow and field even one punt or kick.

It’s been three years since Hester last returned anything of significance for Chicago. It’s been a little over a decade since his initial torching of the entire league in 2006. Yet, how he played, and how his legacy has evolved, hasn’t gone quietly into the night.

Not in the least.

For many, Hester is the unquestioned focal point of former head coach Lovie Smith’s tenure in Chicago. His kickoff return to open Super Bowl XLI serving as the exclamation point of his arrival to everyone in the football world. Everyone except the Bears and their fans, that is. The results of that game no doubt still resonate painfully for many to this day, but that one unforgettable moment created by Hester was emblematic of the kind of immeasurable freak he was.

Sure, given that they played more snaps a game, you could theoretically single out Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, and even Lance Briggs instead. The talents of these men offering quality abilities to merely traditional football positions, paled in comparison to the blur Hester offered.

Whether it was a knack for making the right cut at the perfect time, an always loaded blaze of speed making uncovered open field a death warrant for opposing teams, or singular vision of how blocks developed from his teammates before they even happened, Hester was one of a kind.

Unfathomably, Hester made the toughest play to score on, look easy and routine in exercise.

What became odd concerning Hester, was how many people would be surprised as he squeezed his way through the tightest return lanes to score another touchdown, after receiving previous reverberating lessons. Time and time again, Hester had the most convenient gift - the element as well as excitement of surprise.

The most impressive sign of respect paid to Hester after 13 touchdowns in his first two years, was how he became universally feared by punters, special teams coordinators, and head coaches alike. Given his transcendent flair for making the most out of nothing, teams playing the Bears began to directionally kick and punt away from him altogether.

No one wanted Hester to be the guy that would help Chicago steal a game or reel in necessary momentum for a comeback, and that reflected in how Hester’s chances diminished over the years. It must be acknowledged that the Bears trying to force their most dynamic playmaker in Hester into a receiver, was another potential detracting force when he experienced a two-year scoring drought from 2008-2009.

It wasn’t the primary reason.

In essence, Chicago was only being faulted for attempting to maximize their best scoring asset. This move to part-time play at receiver in addition to his return duties, could’ve actually been seen as a response to Hester being kicked to less, in all reality. The numbers showcased that notion as the years wore on.

In both 2006 and 2007, Hester received 40-plus punt return attempts. By 2009, he hit his career Chicago low at 28, the peak of Hester avoidance. He wouldn’t again reach 40-plus attempts until 2012, long after his prime. Soon after his Bears release in 2013, a two-year-stint with the Falcons, and a short-lived stay with the Baltimore Ravens, his career finally came to a head.

It all climaxed with Hester giving football fans one last adrenaline rush for the Seahawks against those same Falcons in this year’s postseason. One last hurrah at 34-years-old as an emergency signing - the last game he’ll likely play.

Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons
Devin Hester returning a kick that was called back in the 2017 Divisional Round against the Atlanta Falcons. The contest was likely his last NFL game.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Which, brings up an important discussion topic - his Hall of Fame question.

There should be no energy wasted in a debate. No one has ever made the Hall of Fame exclusively as a returner, but Hester should be the first. He was that dominant and that “ridiculous”, as Bears radio play-by-play man Jeff Joniak famously called him, to earn a gold jacket one day.

His beloved coach Smith agrees: “For me, he should be first ballot in the Hall of Fame.”

That, or this conversation is shelved altogether with Hester putting off his planned retirement and subsequently playing well into his middle age. Flash forward to years from now as broadcasters continue to lament, “You just can’t give that much space to the 45-year-old Devin Hester. It’s not smart.”

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.