I still remember the first time I got the honor of watching Devin Hester return a kickoff. As a seven-year-old kid, I didn’t fully understand the significance of the Super Bowl but with a hardcore Bears family surrounding me, I was dragged into throwing on an orange Urlacher jersey in support and watching a game I knew next to nothing about. Before it began, my father gushed about this player named Devin Hester who he believed was going to “take it to the house”, a phrase that blew way over my head at the time. Turns out he was right.
The opening kick was off and it dropped into the hands of a Bears player (whom I assumed was the famous Hester). He was off like a gazelle and my eyes immediately perked up at the sight. Dipping inside and out with pure ease, he made defenders miss like a ghost floating through walls. No one could get a solid grip on him even when he dived right into the cluster of white jerseys. His grace was breathtaking, he made guys miss seemingly at will. And the second he hit the open field, his speed was unlike anything I have ever seen before.
As a child, I was obsessed with the concept of speed. Things moving quickly fascinated me, so free and unheralded. It was exhilarating to even just play Sonic the Hedgehog games. To see a man move this fluidly, this effortlessly was mind-blowing to me.
And over a decade later, it’s a moment that still sticks in my head today, even with the eventual loss of that Super Bowl. As delightful as it is to watch new faces like Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr., nothing has come close to the thrill whenever Hester had the ball in his hands. It’s the type of thrill that deserves a bust in Canton.
If you haven’t heard, Hester has recently called it a career after 11 wonderful years in the league, nine with our beloved Bears. And what a career it has been. He will leave as the record holder for all-time most return touchdowns with 20, all-time most punt return touchdowns with 14, third all-time for punt return yards with 3,695, the single-season record holder with four punt return touchdowns, the list for return records and accolades goes on and on with this man.
A great kick returner in the Hall of Fame is nothing new. Gale Sayers, Deion Sanders, and Ollie Matson among others have all found their way to Canton. However what creates an uphill battle for Hester is the fact he is strictly a return man and never heavily contributed outside of special teams. Sayers is a rushing legend, Sanders enters the greatest corner conversation every time it’s had, even Matson was a five-time All-Pro fullback (the 60s man, they were wild) himself.
As we are all well aware of, Hester has always been a below-average-to-mediocre receiver throughout his career. Three years into his career the Bears converted him from defensive back, his collegiate position at Miami, because he had no ability to play that position on the NFL level. And even at receiver, he barely played at an NFL level. His best receiving year (using that term loosely) came in 2009 with 757 yards and three touchdowns.
His only impact came in the form of the return game. And for a player to make the Hall of Fame with such little field time is a rarity. Only four kickers (and two were All-Pros at other positions) and one punter have found their way to Canton. Not a single pure return specialist has a bust.
This really stacks the odds against Hester. With nothing else to his name other than returns may not be enough to swoon the Hall of Fame committee, especially considering fellow return specialists Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington (tied for most kick return touchdowns for a career) have been all but forgotten by football masses.
However, in Hester’s case, it’s not the stats or numbers that will get him inducted. It’s the memories. Never before in NFL history has a player with such little responsibility affected the game the way Hester has. Gameplans were built on avoiding him. Kickers would be inclined to kick the ball out of bounds and accept the penalty rather than put the ball in his hands.
The punt is among the most mundane and pathetic plays in football. It’s the offense waving the white flag of and almost always ends in a routine fair catch or the ball bouncing hopelessly across the field while the receiving team yells poison on the top of their lungs and trips over themselves to get away from it.
Only Devin Hester found a way to electrify an entire stadium through a punt return. Only Hester found a way to complete a 23-3 comeback through a punt return. And only Hester could make the Hall of Fame through the return game.
As the offensive portion of the game increasingly explodes in popularity, the regularly swift and relatively unimpactful special teams are fading from the game as a whole with rule changes and a glaring lack of fan appreciation. Kickoffs are seen a bathroom and snack break, not to mention a situation set up for disaster. Hester made returns cool again.
He was a great football player at what he did and that merits a trip to Canton. Through the unforgettable memories he made for the sport and single-handedly keeping the kickoff and punt game alive, one day, Hester will find his way to the Hall of Fame.