Devin Hester was crying.
He had just broken Brian Mitchell’s record for kick-/punt-return touchdowns in Minnesota and he was mixing in words with tears.
Returning kicks for touchdowns is looked at as a rare, singular art, one man navigating chaos to find salvation. But Hester, already at the pinnacle of his profession, was tearing up because he wanted his teammates to share in his achievement.
“I really love those guys,” he said. “I know the success is from them guys and it’s hard. I hate sitting here taking all the glory and I wish those 10 guys were up here and y’all were asking them questions because they deserve it. Those 10 guys, they wanted it badder than me and I wanted it bad. I could tell for some reason they wanted it badder than me, and that’s why I’m glad God put me on a team like this.”
He added: ”I can say today, the Chicago Bears, we’re the best punt return team (to) ever do this.”
Peppers, Hester, Johnson headline 2024 Pro Football HOF class
Hester is not without ego. During his playing days, the back of his shoes read “Any” (left foot) and “Time” (right foot). He referred to himself recently as the “guy who everyone wanted to come watch.” That’s true. He was one of the most electric Chicago athletes of his era, a beloved Bears player who brought happiness to so many fans. (He was ranked No. 20 on the franchise’s all-century list.)
A few years ago, Hester told me he knew he was going to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not hoped, knew.
“I have no doubt in my mind I (will) make it,” he said. “I know I will. When it’s all said and done, there’s no question I will be a Hall of Famer.”
Hester was right. He was voted in Thursday in his third time on the ballot. He is sui generis. No pure returner had ever been inducted to Canton. Making the Hall of Fame as a specialist is nigh impossible. Only the punter Ray Guy and kickers Morten Anderson and Jan Stenerud have done it.
But Hester deserved to be the guy to do it. He was a game-wrecker, respected and feared by opposing teams, as well as a folk hero in Chicago, where the sounds of Soulja Boy presaged that something exciting was about to happen.
— Jarrett Payton (@paytonsun) February 8, 2024
His record 19 kick-return touchdowns (14 punt, five kickoff) are three more than his receiving touchdowns (add in one rushing touchdown and one return of a missed field goal). That might not sound like much in terms of volume, but Halls of Fame are about measuring a player in their own era along with how they stack up to their historical peers. Hester has no equal.
Being a Hall of Fame return man isn’t something that any player sets out to do. When Hester came out of the University of Miami as a speed merchant, he wanted to be Deion Sanders. After he tied Sanders’ NFL record of 19 “return” touchdowns (a catch-all combination of kick, punt, interceptions, fumbles and missed field goals), Sanders texted him with congratulations. Hester got choked up about that too.
Devin Hester showed us a text from Deion Sanders congratulating him on tying the record. He’s listed as “Prime Time.”
— jon greenberg (@jon_greenberg) October 20, 2013
“Just coming out of college, coaches told me I wasn’t going to be nothing but a kickoff and punt returner,” he said in 2010. “I wanted to earn a position in the league. But I’m here today to say I am a kickoff and punt returner, but at the same time, I’m the best (to) ever do it.”
Again, he never lacked for confidence.
Hester burst onto the scene as a rookie for a Bears team that took the city of Chicago on a ride to the Super Bowl. And it was Hester who provided Bears fans with a memorable but momentary thrill when he returned the opening kickoff of the game for a touchdown. Aside from the Prince concert at halftime, it was the only positive thing Bears fans remember from that Super Bowl.
Hester was eventually paid No. 1 receiver money, but that wasn’t his strength. Just a way to fill time between some pretty famous returns.
“A lot of people look at the special teams part,” he said to me in 2019. “But when you look at a Hall of Famer, you don’t just look at the position. What did he bring to his team? What did he bring to the league? What vibe did he bring?”
When it came to vibes, few brought better ones than Hester. He made Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” anthem his personal return song, popular long after its expiration date as a stadium anthem. Radio broadcaster Jeff Joniak’s “Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!” catchphrase is one of the most memorable in Chicago sports history.
It wasn’t just Joniak who got wound up when Hester broke one off. Hester delighted in how he made the stone-faced Lovie Smith go crazy on the sideline.
“One of (Smith’s) kids came up to me once and said, ‘The only time I see my daddy smile is when you make a big play and run back a kickoff or punt,’” he told me.
17 years ago today, Devin Hester started Super Bowl XLI with a BANG. 😤 pic.twitter.com/STGjcVZ3mh
— NFL (@NFL) February 4, 2024
Just as quarterbacks often buy gifts for their offensive linemen, Hester did the same for his return units. So not only did his teammates get the rush of helping him score, but they also got rewarded.
“I loved being on a kick return or punt return (unit) because every time he would score, he would buy a gift for everybody, so it’s like you’re already getting paid to do the job on top of Devin Hester is gonna buy you a cool gift,” former teammate Earl Bennett told me recently. “He was like a huge gadget toy guy. So he’d buy those race cars that go 40-50 mph, (remote-control) airplanes or something cool like that.”
Even when he didn’t score, Hester could scoot for 30 or 40 yards and help the Bears get prime field position. He singlehandedly got opposing coaches to alter their game plans to avoid him. Hester was in their heads just by being on the field. There’s value to that.
Hester’s success wasn’t just the result of blazing speed. There was a thought process behind it. In 2011, after he returned his 11th punt return for a touchdown, I was at his locker as he explained his method.
“It was like baseball, he pitched it right down the middle,” Hester said. “He gave me great field position to go either way. I can set the defense up, stare one way and go the other way.”
Someone then asked him how he knew when it was the right move to take a ball out of the end zone.
“It’s a time thing,” he said. “You have a clock in your head. Anything under four seconds is a good opportunity to bring it out of the end zone, regardless of how deep the ball is kicked. Sometimes you get line drives that go 9 yards deep in the end zone, but it’s 3.5 seconds. It lets you know guys don’t have time to get down there fast enough, so you have time to bring it out of the end zone.”
He was a boutique touchdown scorer. Every time he reached the end zone, it was memorable.
Numbers don’t define every kind of Hall of Famer. Offensive linemen who built their reputations year by year, block by block, are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. So are cornerbacks who caused quarterbacks to avoid them altogether. Sometimes you just have to trust your eyes.
Hester was the best return man in NFL history. His face belongs on a bust with all of the other best-evers.
And you can bet that when he gives his induction speech this summer in Ohio, there will be tears of joy.
(Photo of Devin Hester returning the opening kick of Super Bowl XLI for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts: Tom Hauck / Bloomberg via Getty Images)