He may not be a Chicago Bear anymore, but Atlanta Falcons kick returner Devin Hester is still one of my favorite NFL players, and he made headlines this past week. Hester returned a punt for a touchdown in Atlanta's Thursday night blowout win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and in doing so, he surpassed Deion Sanders and became the sole record-holder for most combined return touchdowns in NFL history.
Devin Hester returned his record-breaking 20th return for a touchdown Thursday against the Buccaneers.
Hester has been one of my favorite players since he burst onto the scene in Chicago in 2006. I was in college and starting to watch NFL football on a more regular basis (as opposed to just playing Madden), and Hester was one of the reasons that I started putting aside the time to actually watch Bears games. Any time Hester touched the ball, there was a chance for an exciting big play, and I wanted to be there for every one of them! I hoped for defensive stops (Brian Urlacher was another of my favorite players to watch) so that I could watch teams kick the ball to Hester.
Geez, he was fast! And it seemed that every week, he was returning another kick (or two) for a touchdown, single-handedly putting the struggling Bears back into games and making them playoff contenders.
I still vividly remember a Monday night game in Arizona the week after my birthday, in which Chicago came back from a 20-0 half-time deficit to win the game - without scoring a single offensive touchdown! In the second half, Brian Urlacher stripped the ball from Arizona's running back, and Charles Tillman returned it for a touchdown to put the Bears within one score of pulling off the comeback. The game was eventually decided by a fourth-quarter punt that Hester (then a rookie) returned 83 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
Cardinals head coach Dennis Green followed up the game with one of the best post game, press conference rants in football history!
When the Bears made it to the Super Bowl that year (much a result of Hester's performance), Hester returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown (the first time that had happened in NFL history). As the game was beginning, my dad got up to go to the bathroom. I told him not to; that he would miss Hester return the kick for a touchdown. He insisted that wouldn't happen, and left the room anyway. When you gotta go, you gotta go...
Anyway, when he came back from the restroom, I got to tell him "I told you so!", as Hester did, in fact, return the kick for a touchdown. Alas, the Bears failed to win the game. I take some comfort in the fact that at least Peyton Manning got his much-deserved Super Bowl ring out of it. Sadly, Urlacher never got his ring...
I've had a lot of wonderful memories from Hester over the years. I watched eagerly in his later years in Chicago, hoping for him to get those last few returns that he needed to break the record. But it was clear that he had lost a step, and it seemed that the record might be just out of his reach. When he finally tied Deion's record, I thought that was probably it for him. I knew his time in Chicago was limited, and sure enough, Chicago released him this past year.
I told my dad not to miss the opening kickoff! Oh, the memories...
A Falcon? Or a kick-returning Phoenix?
But now, it looks like he has been resurrected in Atlanta. Hester looked like he did in his prime on Thursday night. He made several big plays during the game. He stripped the ball from a defender following an interception in order to keep the Falcon's early momentum from fizzling. He converted a perfectly-executed end around for a touchdown. And then the moment of glory: returning a punt for a touchdown to break the record!
You'd think that of all the coaches to know better than to kick to Hester, it would be Lovie Smith (now head coach of Tampa Bay). I wonder if Lovie felt a rush of pride watching his former prodigal game-changer break free and sprint into the record books?
Whatever steps he may have lost in Chicago, it looks like Hester has gotten them back in Atlanta. He looked quick and explosive. This might be just the beginning. With a few more games like this, he won't only break the record; he could smash it!
After the game, Hester had this to say:
"I’m happy, man.
You know what, I’m going to say it, man. I wasn’t happy the last three, four years in Chicago, because things wasn’t going the way I expect. I would always have a great camp, have all the receivers saying and coaches saying I had the best camp out of all the receivers. And once the season start off, I’m not there.
You know, and I got a quarterback now that, he loves even the walk-ons, man. And the coaches know how to get the ball to me, you know, make plays for me. And I’m excited for this season, man. This is only the beginning for our team."
It was obvious that Hester wasn't happy in Chicago these past few years. I don't blame him. With the way that the organization treated Urlacher and Hester, I'm not terribly happy with the organization either.
But this isn't the time for bashing the Bears. Instead, let's celebrate Hester's record-breaking (and ongoing) career with this Youtube highlight reel of his first 19 return TDs, and listen to those crowds go wild the moment he hits a seam:
You are now statistically the best returner in NFL history. Congratulations!
The "Best Ever" belongs in Canton!
If being the "best ever" isn't a good enough case for induction into the Hall of Fame, then I don't know what is. Special teams players don't usually get Hall of Fame recognition. Ray Guy redefined the punter position back in the 70's, but he wasn't enshrined in the Hall of Fame until this year! And Steve Tasker may never get his bust in Canton. Devin Hester definitely deserves recognition in the Hall of Fame, and I hope that the voters feel the same why when it comes time to consider him for the honor.