‘Sunday Morning Special Teams’ is a weekly column divised by yours truly, Greg Forbes. It’s aims are to provide in-depth analysis of all special teams play, career retrospectives, player interviews and knowledge on the latest in the world of the unit itself.
Unbelievably, your favourite weekly, episodic Special Teams column has made it to print for the fifth time in as many weeks, and this time we profile another truly great positional player in Devin Hester.
A former Chicago Bear, Atlanta Falcon, Baltimore Raven and Seattle Seahawk, Hester is considered to be the greatest return specialist of all time. And to be honest, that’s nothing less than he deserves.
Whilst the general consensus dictates that Hester wasn’t the greatest receiver, far from it actually, he rose to prominence as the most dangerous return specialist in all of professional football. That reputation was backed up by the conclusion of his illustrious 10-year career, as he remains the sole leader for most all-time return touchdowns (punt and kickoff combined) and most all-time punt return touchdowns of any NFL player ever.
So, what made Hester so amazing? What was his career path like? Well, let’s begin with a famous quote on the man himself…“You never ask a women if she is pregnant. You never go for half-price sushi, and you never kick to Devin Hester.”
Hester’s childhood wasn’t exactly a fairytale. He was gifted athletically, yet suffered many tragedies from the onset of his life. The first of these was the separation of his parents, before his mother was severely injured in a car accident prior to his teenage years. Two years following said car crash, Hester’s father passed away due to cancer.
These early tribulations did not ruin Devin, as he bounced back time and time again with help from the male figures in his life, primarily his step-father and brother, who helped manifest his love of the game, despite his troubles.
His talent was evident, as he excelled in multiple sports, one of which being soccer. At his high school – Palm Beach Gardens High, then Suncoast High School in Florida – Hester earned a reputation as a hybrid, athletic talent who was exquisite at a number of positions. He was utilised on both sides of the ball, at cornerback and wide receiver, respectively. In addition to that, he performed as the school’s’ return specialist. His production as a teenager contributed to his five star rating from Rivals.com and set him up for a big collegiate career at the University of Miami.
The Dawn Of A Legend
Devin Hester spent three years as a Hurricane, and left with the moniker of “Hurricane Hester”. His reputation as an elite return specialist gained him a special friendship with Deion Sanders, who helped mould and shape Hester’s game, whilst Hester adopted Sanders’ mannerisms and signature touchdown showboating.
In his three campaigns at the ‘U’, Hester played as both receiver and cornerback. Through those seasons, he caught just 10 passes for 196 yards, whilst his career average per catch totalled 19.6 yards. On the defensive side of the ball he completed just 11 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 sack, but was immense in creating game-altering plays, having registered 5 interceptions across the 2004 and 2005 campaigns of his collegiate career.
He dominated as a return specialist however, as he compiled 638 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 41 punt returns. That production produced an average of 15.6 return yards per punt return. Furthermore, he had 1 less kick return, but amassed 1019 yards and 2 touchdowns, whilst he averaged 25.5 yards per attempt.
‘Hurricane Hester’ had arrived. His talents were on full display, and whilst he may not have been the most gifted receiver, or even cornerback, his prowess as a return specialist made him a hotly contested prospect ahead of the 2006 NFL Draft.
With The 57th Selection In The 2006 NFL Draft…
The Chicago Bears selected Devin Hester. And with that selection, they locked down a perennial Pro Bowler, who was about to change the return game altogether in his rookie season.
Speaking of that season, he kicked it off with a bang as he notched his first ever punt return in his NFL debut, which, incidentally, tied a then-record 108-yard return TD after the New York Giants failed to convert a field goal.
Hester went on to record two return touchdown scores against the St. Louis Rams, whilst he added a clutch game-winning 83-yard punt return TD against the Arizona Cardinals to boot.
By the end of the 06’ regular season, Hester had accumulated a league leading 47 punt returns, upon which he created 600 yards and 3 touchdowns, both of which led the league also. Besides his punt return dominance, he returned the ball at kickoff 20 times for 528 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 26.4 yards per return across the season.
Super Bowl XLI
The 13-3 Bears side, led by Lovie Smith, advanced to the Super Bowl in 2006, with Hester stealing the show on the grandest stage in what is probably the least surprising news you’ll hear this week.
Of course, it was in Super Bowl XLI, that Adam Vinatieri booted a limp kickoff into Hester’s open arms, as he ran the ball back for a touchdown in what is now one of the greatest special teams plays of all-time. The aforementioned touchdown was the first of its kind in Super Bowl history, and served as the quickest score since the Bowl’s inception also. The Colts learned from their mistakes however, evidenced by the fact that the ball never reached Hester again in the game. They eventually ran out 29-17 victors over the Bears, which meant this would be the closest Hester would come to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in his otherwise immaculate career.
Nevertheless, 2006 will serve in Hester’s memory as one of his greatest campaigns. He was subsequently voted to the Pro Bowl and was named an All-Pro for the season. Additionally, he picked up the NFL Alumni Special Teams Player of the Year Award, whilst the Chicago Bears awarded him with the Brian Piccolo Award, which embodied his exquisite work ethic and joyous character.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
Following on from one of the most immense rookie seasons in the history of the NFL, Hester was determined not to be a one trick pony.
Instead, he opted to transcend his game and become a receiver for the Bears. That decision was met with mixed emotions, mainly due to the fact that Hester’s idol, Sanders, was a cornerback, but the decision proved to be the right one in the end.
He concluded another Pro Bowl season in 2007 having caught 20 passes for 299 yards, averaging 15.0 yards per reception, whilst he added 2 receiving touchdowns to his résumé. On top of that, he accumulated 651 yards on 42 punt returns, adding 4 touchdowns among those return attempts. That tally served as his largest recorded return touchdowns in a season, whilst the addition of his 2 KR’s served as an NFL record by one returner in a single season.
As a result of his dominating year as a sophomore in the league, Hester was once again named the NFL Alumni Special Teams Player of the Year. Moreover, he was also named to the Pro Bowl and an All-Pro once again.
Bouncing Back From Adversity
The 2008 and 2009 campaigns weren’t awful for Devin, but they were far from great seasons by his standards. He failed to collect a single return touchdown in either season, however, his ability as a receiver was improving steadily. In just two years, he began to cleanse his route running prowess, whilst his catch percentage increased dramatically. This is perhaps best evidenced by his statistical production as a receiver, having notched 6 touchdowns and 1,422 receiving yards across the two years.
That said, it wasn’t until 2010 that he would regain Pro Bowl status.
That 2010 season was unreal to say the least. It was arguably his best as a receiver, having caught 40 of the 71 targets thrown his way that year. With those catches, Hester racked up 475 yards and a career-best 4 receiving touchdowns. As the franchise’s star returner, he led the league with 564 yards, 3 touchdowns and 17.1 yards per punt return on his PR attempts. Besides his success as a punt returner, Hester also achieved a career-best KR average, as he averaged 35.6 yards per return on his 12 attempts in that campaign.
Despite a lull in form in the prior seasons to 2010, Hester reinvented himself and was rightfully named an All-Pro for the third and final time that season, whilst he also made the Pro Bowl for the year. Perhaps best of all, Hester captured the NFL Alumni Special Teams Player of the Year Award for the third and final time in five seasons as a result of his great 2010 campaign.
Final Years As A Bear
In the following three campaigns in the Windy City, Hester’s production as both a return specialist and wideout reduced heavily. Thanks in large part to the NFL’s rule change in the 2011 season, which meant kickoffs took place from the 35-yard marker, instead of the 30-yard marker, which meant fewer returns, less injuries and more touchbacks.
Irrespective of the decline in statistical production, those final year’s Hester spent as a Bear produced some amazing memories. The first of which was a 69-yard touchdown return against the Carolina Panthers, which elevated him atop the all-time leaderboard for punt returns.
After a somewhat treacherous 2012 season, which saw Hester rank 12th among return specialists in punt return average, he had considered retirement. Yet, he remained with the Bears ahead of the 2013 campaign, and changed history with that decision. This was because in a week 4 matchup versus the New York Giants, Hester achieved the franchise-record for all-time kickoff return yards with a total of 4,643 yards. Later in the season, he added a 19th return touchdown of his illustrious career, which tied the record held by his hero, Deion Sanders.
Following the conclusion of the 2013 season as the league’s leader in return yards with 1,442 yards, Hester and the Bears parted ways. Whilst it was a potentially regrettable decision to make for Chicago, they sensed that Hester’s play was on the decline, and thus opted to save cap space and spend elsewhere.
The franchises’ chairman Phil Emery left this message, as a thank you to Devin Hester’s contributions to the team and city of Chicago, “While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers.”
One Last Hurrah
On March 20, 2014, the Atlanta Falcons signed Hester to a three-year deal. Incidentally, Hester was about to make history in the house that his hero built, but more importantly, he was about to surpass Sanders as the greatest return specialist of all-time in the same jersey that made him great too. And that, for me, is the greatest thank you Hester could’ve provided for his mentor.
The 20th return touchdown of his career came in week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as he danced his way to the end zone on a 62-yard punt return. As he finished the play, Hester adopted Sanders’ signature prance as he showboated in style.
He finished the year with 18 punt returns for the previously alluded to touchdown and 240 yards. Moreover, he also recorded a league-leading 1128 tally of return yards on kick returns, averaging 25.1 yards per return. He was also utilised moderately as a receiver, having caught 38 receptions for 504 yards and 2 touchdowns to boot.
Once more, a nomination to the Pro Bowl was greatly received in the 2014 campaign, as he made one last trip to the event in his career.
In the following two seasons, Hester suffered from turf toe, which hampered his production irreversibly. He was subsequently released by the Falcons on July 26, 2016. From there, he made a brief return in the 2016 season for the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks but could never quite regain fitness, thus he hung up his cleats. The decision however, didn’t become finalised until he signed a ceremonial one-day contract with the Bears, officially retiring on April 23, 2018.
Whilst the last couple of seasons of Devin’s career were a little bit of an anti-climax, his legacy never faltered. He gave us, the fans, so many electric memories, filled with incredible cuts on a dime, speed, flair and a 5’11” guy waltzing his way into the end zone. And to be honest with you, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A Case For The Hall of Fame
Devin Hester might not have been Larry Fitzgerald or Randy Moss as a receiver, but he was the greatest return specialist of all-time for me. I remember, back in 2010, well before I was even remotely interested in American Football as an 11-year old kid that Devin Hester was the only athlete I knew of from the NFL. His highlight reel was exceptionally wonderful, and made me drool in awe as I sat watching hours and hours of his dynamic combination of agility and speed torment opposing defensive units.
In my opinion, it isn’t a case of “if” but “when” Hester will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I certainly hope it’s within the first year of his eligibility for the prestigious honour. That, for me, would solidify his place as THE undisputed return specialist of not just his generation but in NFL history as a whole.
Whilst I could display his case for the HOF with beautifully constructed phrases, I’d much prefer to have the statistics do the talking..
- 10 Year NFL Career.
- 4x Pro Bowler (2006, 2007, 2010 & 2014).
- 3x All-Pro (2006, 2007 & 2010).
- 3x NFL Alumni Special Teams Player of the Year (2006, 2007 & 2010).
- NFL All-2000’s Team Nomination.
- Most Return Touchdowns in an NFL Career (20).
- Most Punt Return Touchdowns in an NFL Career (14).
- Most Single Season Return Touchdowns (6, tied).
Credits – sportsreference.com, pro-football-reference.com, profootballhof.com, bearswire.usatoday.com.