The last time we saw him play in a professional football game, a 34-year-old Devin Hester was anything but at the peak of his powers. Long gone were the days of him consistently setting the NFL on fire. Yet there he was, breaking his own career kick return records against a Falcons team in the playoffs that would go onto the Super Bowl. In the last game he would ever play no less.
That’s the thing about Hester: he always did the unexpected. He always brought you out of your seat just when you were about to relax. He was perhaps one of the few football players that had you glued to the television set any time he was set back for a return. His greatest quality was that he made special teams an event unlike anyone else.
On Tuesday, he officially retired.
No, Hester hanging up the cleats only now isn’t shocking. The expectation following his last playoff game in January was that he would eventually retire, but at his own pace. Similarly to how he would pick his spots and burst through a gap in return coverage.
It’s funny that he chooses a random December morning to go through with the announcement. To see the outpouring of affection and appreciation for a player that changed the NFL return game forever. Hester could’ve picked any day and any time to retire, and the tremendous response would’ve still been the same. That’s because he’s one of Chicago’s most beloved athletes ever as he was an NFL trailblazer.
And while it isn’t remotely true, I’ll always choose to believe the NFL moved kickoffs forward to the 35-yard line to limit his ability in fear, not for the safety of it’s own players. In my mind, that adds to his legend. Hell, that’s even what Hester noted in his retirement statement saying, “Commissioner Goodell, you put the kickoff back at the 30.” He really did always have a penchant for flashing.
20 return touchdowns, the most all-time by any returner. A record that will likely never be broken allowing Hester to stand alone.
That 20-touchdown mark includes his famous opener to Super Bowl XLI, where CBS color commentator Phil Simms said “it was a blessing to lose the coin toss” in regards to the Colts. Never has anyone ate their words so quickly. It’s a testament to Hester that this play still holds up well despite the Bears not actually winning the game. The mark of a legend.
That includes an 108-yard missed field goal return against the Giants in the Bears’ magical 2006 season, where Hester slow played everyone. Even legendary play-by-play man Al Michaels seemed utterly flabbergasted at the play: a common effect Hester had on the football community. An effect that had him run roughshod on a league that didn’t see him coming from the outset. Most probably still don’t.
That includes games in prime time, also in his rookie year, where Hester shined at his best, returning two scores against the Rams on “Monday Night Football.” Each seemingly effortless on the most difficult play to score in football. But that’s what Hester did so well: make the impossible seem easy with a trademark flair.
The thing about Hester, was that he had longevity too. While he was never going to be able to maintain his torrid rookie year pace, he still scored a touchdown in his ninth NFL season, his first without the Bears in Atlanta, the record-breaker. It’s unheard of for a guy to last that long in the NFL with a specialization on plays that happen maybe a total of 10 times a game regarding punts and kick returns combined. But that’s what Hester did so well: defy expectations.
Sure, there was his famous return touchdown “drought” in 2008 and 2009. Which, if you think about it, was even more of a compliment to Hester that people were shocked he hadn’t brought a score back in so long. You can always blame some of the shift of his playing time towards offense, as well. It doesn’t matter.
At any rate, the “drought” fittingly ended with a touchdown against the Packers on “Monday Night Football”. The league’s modern “Primetime” always saving his best for when the lights came on, almost as if he relished knowing the entire country was watching.
For Hester, he set the bar so high that when he didn’t reach those expectations, it was jarring. For anyone else, not scoring a return touchdown in two years would’ve warranted a shrug. It was a stretch to say he disappointed, though. Far from it.
Assuredly, as Hester files his retirement papers now, the debate will rage on as to whether he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Of whether he deserves a bust carved out in Canton. I’m of the opinion he is, and I’m not alone, and that he should get in on the first ballot. Considering his position, he has one of the best cases for one of the league’s best honors ever.
It shouldn’t be a debate either. Hester’s the greatest at his position ever. He dramatically changed football. He was, to quote the great Jeff Joniak, the most ridiculous we’ve ever seen.
Five years from now, when Hester is first eligible for the Hall, we’ll know what voters think in return. It would be wise of them to remember that someone changed the game in such little time. For them to recognize how he was the first and last returner of his kind. One that helped cement a golden 21st century era in the NFL. If guys like Gale Sayers and Terrell Davis can get in with shorter careers, then there’s no reason players such as Hester who played a small percentage of football games can’t either.
The resume doesn’t lie.
Neither does the reaction to his retirement.
Whatever happens regarding Canton, we won’t soon forget Hester’s accomplishments or appreciate them any less as the years go on. We won’t forget him letting our imaginations run wild. It would be inappropriate and a disservice otherwise.
This is one final salute to one of the true greats.
For the last time: Devin Hester, you are ridiculous.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.