Between the Atlanta Falcons' Week 3 humiliation of Tampa Bay on Thursday Night Football and the sixth game of Monday Night Football's annual slate during Devin Hester’s rookie season, the young special teams star displayed a proclivity for shining brightest on primetime.
Hester's "Hello, World" moment became a bit of a football folklore around my freshmen year Creswell hall mates. Nearly two months into our inaugural year at UGA we’d begun congregating on Monday night obviously to eyeball Monday Night Football for three and a half hours a night. On this particular October night, the inexplicably undefeated Chicago Bears were the guests of an underwhelming 1-4 Cardinals squad. A humdrum matchup transformed into an instant classic.
The Bears set the stage by quickly falling behind 20-0 in the first half of this slow-burn of a game in which Rex Grossman was allowed to throw a quartet of groan-inducing interceptions and a pair of lost fumbles.
In the second half, the Bears’ opportunistic defense pounced on the Cardinals self-destructive offense. For the next two quarters Denny Green’s brain slowly ticked towards detonation while the Bears defense chipped away at the lead.
I just sat there stoically like Edgar Allen Poe’s raven repeating a rookie named Hester’s name before every return while our neighbor, a particularly passionate FSU football zealot dismissed my prognostication.
"Y'all look out for Devin Hester. He's gonna be something special." -- @CerebralSportex in the Fall of 2006 watching MNF Bears v. Cards— John Yasenchok (@theyahtzee) September 19, 2014
Then, with 3:15 remaining, it happened. The Cardinals sprung a leak and Hester came shooting out of it like steam from a geyser.
Hester fielded Arizona's punt at the 17, although the momentum carried him backwards another two yards. Hester took three steps right, reversed to his left, never stopped moving forward, accelerated through an alley and returned the ball to its sender. It didn't take Morpheus to see that Hester was "The One."
In retrospect, the casual observer would consider the second return touchdown in Hester’s six week NFL career as the genesis of his legend, but that would be a spurious claim.
It was a fitting primetime debut considering who his NFL mentor has been for the last 11 years.
It only took two games for Hester to make his mark on a team littered with future Pro Bowlers. Two collegiate games. In his second appearance as a true freshman, Hester blazed a 97-yard trail on the opening kickoff against Florida.
The omnipotent gridiron vision that allowed Deion Sanders to circumvent would-be-tacklers apparently includes an eye for effervescent talent as well. Two years before Hester flew onto the Monday Night Football scene, Sanders obtained the cell phone digits of the sophomore cornerback from FSU’s in-state rival and dialed him up during a team meeting for what would be the first of many enlightening conversations.
Hester was listed as a cornerback on the Hurricanes depth chart, but it was his transcendent special teams ability that likely caught Sanders’ eye.
Runs like this never-ending scamper through Duke’s special teams unit probably created a strong sense of déjà vu.
A decade later, their legacies would cross streams as well.
Unlike his mentor, Hester’s preternatural skill was limited to the return game, making his legacy more difficult to put into perspective. He was converted to wide receiver by the Chicago Bears soon after he was drafted. By his fourth season, he’d become the No. 1 receiver in Jay Cutler’s inaugural season with the Bears.
Critics will argue that Hester was a god on special teams, where late round paupers roam, but Offense is royalty, defenses are the muscle and the GOAT return man couldn’t thrive as a full-time pro nickelback or make the same impact running routes against first-team corners.
“Most special-teams players now are new guys who’ve been relegated to special teams without any experience,” former Buffalo Bills special teams standout Steve Tasker told the New York Times. “That’s part of the reason you see so many guys missing tackles on returns.”
In Hester’s profession, touchdowns are the currency by which legends are judged and paid. Return men such as Dante Hall, Michael “The Beer Man" Lewis and Joshua Cribbs, who holds the record of eight kickoff return touchdowns (Hester has 5) possess the life cycles of an eight-year old’s goldfish.
Even the greats such as Brian Mitchell and Eric Metcalf didn’t create the same level of short-term impact as Hester. It took Mitchell 14 seasons and 463 return opportunities to break the endzone seal nine times. That’s an average of one TD per 51 returns.
Hester's 269 career punt returns have yielded 14 touchdowns deposits, an average of one scoring jaunt per 19 plays.
Between 2002 and 2005, Dante Hall was the barometer by which all return aces were judged.
Hester surpassed Hall’s career totals in two seasons, set the single season record for return touchdowns in his rookie season and by 2008, the Bears had made Hester the NFL’s first $40 million returner. Hester moonlighted at receiver during this time, but that was simply a cover— like Clark Kent’s reporting job.
By the end of Hester’s second season, he’d already carried a dozen kicks back. Between the Bears finale of the 2007 season and a Week 4 matchup against the Green Bay Packers in 2010, Hester went dormant in the return game.
Much of that was due to teams diverting kicks as from Hester as possible and the Bears diverting his attention to playing slot receiver.
The best example of Hester’s game-changing ability involved a return former Packers Greg Jennings called the greatest play he’d even seen. Except Hester didn’t even field the punt.
Down by 10 at home with a minute to go against Green Bay during Week 4 of the 2011 season, Hester called for a fair catch on the far right end of the field. Just one problem. The kicking team's laser-beam focus on Hester backfired when Johnny Knox abandoned his blocking duties raced to the east end of the field, fielded the punt and ran for the touchdown practically untouched to the embarrassment of Green Bay. Unfortunately, a holding penalty on Corey Graham, which would have had no effect on the play nullified the 89-yard touchdown.
Last season, Marc Trestman relieved Hester of his receiving duties, signaling the beginning of a new regime. Speculation that Hester’s time as an effective returner had passed were dismissed as his renewed singular focus on special teams resulted in a slew of league records falling at Hester’s hands. In Week 2 of the 2013 season, Hester set a new franchise record with 249 yards against the Vikings. Against the Washington Redskins five weeks later, he tied Sanders' return record against one of his mentor’s former teams.
However, despite his obvious signs of life and no replacement in waiting, the Bears decided to end their symbiotic relationship with the 31-year-old Hester, who quickly made a beeline for the franchise that his career spirit guide called home during the embryonic stages of his own origin story.
In Atlanta, there are only three orders of business left unfinished for Hester. Breaking Cribbs’ records is a long shot considering the NFL’s kickoff rules changes in 2011, but it’s the last record remaining for Hester to acquaint himself with.
The second item on his career bucket list is the only thing more elusive than himself —a Super Bowl title.
Hester arrived at the tail end of The U dynasty and never enjoyed the spoils of a BCS national championship victory. Chicago Hester played in one Super Bowl as a rookie eight years ago. His opening kickoff touchdown in a moist Dolphin Stadium propelled Chicago to a first-quarter lead before Chicago inevitably stalled for three quarters on offense.
The next three years may determine whether or not Hester will ever fulfill his Super Bowl pursuit. That’s how long his current contract with the Atlanta Falcons runs. At the culmination of his deal, Hester will be a 34. However, for return men who age in dog years, he might as well arrange for a taxidermist to stuff him if he plans on sticking around past 2016.
The Falcons are the most complete team Hester has been a member of. However, if they’re to escape the NFC unscathed, the Falcons may also rely on Hester playing receiver as well.
Instead of fizzling out in his second-life with the Falcons, Hester’s risen to the challenge.
The final item is out of Hester’s hands and relies on the opinions of voters. The Hall of Fame has never been welcoming to return specialists. Special teams is viewed as the bastion for young, raw athletes on the fringe of a 52-man roster.
If kickers are relief pitching equivalents, return men are pinch hitters. Not quite polished enough to stick in the rotation, but still explosive earn to go yard occasionally and provide an emotional lift. In spurts
That sentiment may be changing after Ray Guy’s induction in August. Hester is as sui generis at returning kicks as Guy was at booting them away. Until this summer, placekicker Jan Stenerud was the lone player with a Canton bust strictly for his kicking ability.
Hester’s Canton odds took a sharp uptick against the Tampa Bay Bucs on Thursday, Sept. 18. Of all the coaches who would be most vigilant about punting to Hester, Denny Green would be the most cautious. Aside from Green, Lovie Smith should know best after coaching the Bears during Hester’s first six seasons in the league. Perhaps the 28-0 first half deficit had Smith feeling lightheaded and delirious or this was an endowment on scale Favre curling into a fetal position to assist Michael Strahan’s single season sack record pursuit, but it was over before the kick had even bounced off his foot.
Like the Sirens of Greek mythology who lure ships towards their jagged rocks and watery graves, the Bucs punted towards Hester at the 41 and appeared to have him cornered on the sidelines.
Instead, Hester zig-zagged his way past multiple defenders high-stepping it into the endzone for the 20th official time in a tribute to the legend whom he was displacing from the top rung of an NFL record book and earning a taunting flag along the way.
Not only does Hester high-step like Primetime, he even exudes the same effusive confidence in a more subtle package during interviews.
"You hear rumors about, 'Man, he lost it.' You know, I lost it a little bit. I used to run a 4.2 [-second 40-yard dash], but now I run 4.3," Hester said stiff arming his detractors without breaking stride.
Asked what his odds of being voted into Canton were last fall, Hester confidently replied, “I have one foot in right now.”
Hester’s road to the Hall may not be crystalline as his peers or Sanders’, but Hester’s used to finding alleys amid special teams chaos. This one ends in Canton.