Some of you will say I’m crazy, that it’s the Mann, hands down, and what’s wrong with me?
I understand. Believe me I do.
Yet when I first considered the question of my all-time favorite Bears special teamer, the guy who came to mind was not my selection, nor Mannelly, but Peanut Tillman. Here is this all-time great cornerback, and he’s busting his ass to block on punt returns and block punts. Peanut epitomizes the value the Dave Toub-era Bears put into special teams, making starters want to be role players.
Next I thought of Hunter Hillenmeyer, a man who made key blocks — including one pancake -- on the field goal return touchdowns by Nathan Vasher and my selection. I thought of two safeties of my youth, Maurice Douglass and John Mangum, who seemed to be in on every tackle of Mel Gray and Desmond Howard and Missile Ismail.
I thought of special teams Pro Bowlers Larry Whigham and Brendon Ayanbadejo, and future Pro Bowler Corey Graham. I thought of field goal-blocking machines Alex Brown, Julius Peppers, Izzy Idonije, and Big Cat Williams. I thought of some of the great return men of my life, like Dennis Gentry and Willie Gault and Glyn Milburn and Jerry Azumah, and of course the guys before my time, namely the Kansas Comet and the Galloping Ghost.
I thought of Robbie Gould and Kevin Butler and Bob Thomas and George Blanda. I thought of Brad Maynard and Bob Parsons and even Sid Luckman, who has the 10th most punts in franchise history.
And yes, I thought of Patrick Mannelly, and everything he meant to Bears special teams culture and the team at large.
In the end though, there is one name and one name only. You already know it. You knew it before you saw the photo. You knew it before you read one word of this story.
Devin Devorris Hester.
Hester is my favorite, and it’s not just because he will be the first player in the Hall of Fame as a return man, nor just because he has one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history, and hence one of the most famous plays in Bears history.
I pick him because of what he meant to his teammates.
Hester was a Hall of Famer because he changed football games, but part of the reason he changed these games was that he inspired his teammates. Here is how Mannelly explained it to me:
When you see a talent like (Hester) catching the ball and having his hands on the ball on all the special teams plays, the guys in front of him want to block for him. They want to be a part of a great special teams program. ... That raises everybody’s level of play. It raises everybody’s level of interest. That gets everybody to meetings five minutes early. They stay five minutes late. They’re buying into everything you’re doing on the practice field.
Guys wanted to play with Devin Hester. They wanted to be on the punt return team. They wanted to be on the kickoff return team. They wanted to be part of that celebration in the endzone. ... There were guys begging to get on the punt return team, or big defensive linemen who wanted to be on the wedge because they wanted to block for Devin Hester.
Robbie Gould once told me about enjoying discussions with Hester about what he sees returning kicks. Backup wide receiver Joe Anderson told me about how the team’s weekly special teams dinners engendered togetherness and that it increased his desire to block for Hester.
Anthony Adams said the same:
.@readjack both of those guys outrun angles. Hester was awesome to block for. All u had to do was block ur guy for a split second & poof— ANTHONY ADAMS (@spiceadams) August 9, 2015
My favorite Hester story came from Hillenmeyer, who showed me a game ball that Hester gave him — the ball Hester took to the house against Seattle in 2010 to tie Brian Mitchell’s NFL record of most kick return touchdowns.
I’ll let Hillenmeyer tell his story. When you hear it, you’ll know why he was beloved.
So Bears fans...
Who is your all-time favorite Bears special teamer?