Commentary

Nobody did it better

Devin Hester's ability to reach the end zone gave Bears eight years of thrills

Updated: March 6, 2014, 2:47 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- In a perfect world, Devin Hester's last moment as a Chicago Bear would've been a high punt down the middle, so he could pick and choose exactly how he would strike.

Hester would take off, wearing his high-top spikes with "Any" on one shoe and "Time" on the other, and he would run through the hapless special-team statues, down the Bears sideline, into the end zone and through the tunnel as the roars of the crowd echoed from here to Canton.

That's cliché sports-movie pablum. But in the cold reality of the National Football League, Hester's departure from the Chicago Bears was inevitable, unsurprising and sensible.

After talking to the NFL Network about his likely departure from the team that drafted him in 2006, Hester made it Facebook official on Wednesday night. By Thursday morning, the Bears confirmed they wouldn't be re-signing him for 2014.

This is how NFL careers end, so there's no indignity implied. In fact, the headline on the Bears' website was "End of an Era."

"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," Bears general manager Phil Emery said in a statement.

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDevin Hester recorded 19 "return touchdowns" for the Bears in his eight seasons.

As infuriating as Hester could be to the salary-cap counters and critics, when he was doing what he does best, he was the most exciting player in Chicago and as pure of an athlete as has ever graced a Bears uniform.

Who else could make Lovie Smith run down the field like a Pop Warner parent?

Who else could dance to "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" before receiving a kick and look cool as hell?

Who else would tell a reporter expecting his first child, "Have fun with the kid. Just don't watch him come out!"

That Hester lasted eight seasons with one team -- rare in itself -- as primarily a kick returner is a testament to his once-in-a-lifetime talent at one particular niche job.

Hester is synonymous with return touchdowns, a rare, unique talent. As you might know, he is the all-time kick-return leader with 18 TDs, which includes 13 on punt returns.

If you're like me, you feel like he set a dozen records in 2010 and' 11, when he returned six kicks and punts for scores.

Return touchdowns are so scarce that there is no streamlined record to recognize them, evidenced by the fact that Hester and Deion Sanders are tied with 19 "return touchdowns" (which includes punts, kickoffs, missed field goals, fumbles and interceptions).

Hey, why not include Nordstrom returns too? They take everything back.

Football is a highly specialized game that has turned its most devoted fans into jargon-spitting, minutiae-craven lunatics who breezily talk about "grading film" like an entry-level football operations intern.

But Hester was the embodiment of why we watch sports in the first place.

If you take it down to the basics, in football, there are hitters, runners and throwers.

Hester was a runner. An athletic and spatial genius, Hester could make his body do amazing things and he should be celebrated for that, not pilloried for what he didn't do.

No, he never caught on as a receiver, failing to live up to Smith's dreams of making him his No. 1 target for a perennially misshapen offense.

After Hester was formally relieved of his receiver duties, I asked him during the preseason about being the Bears' designated hitter. He smiled that wonderful Hester smile.

"Oh yeah, that's what it's going to look like," he said. "Every time I'm up to bat, it's either going to be a strike or it's going to be a home run."

While he had the confidence, there weren't many home runs in 2013 -- just one punt-return TD -- and that came after a goose egg in 2012. With no receiving duties, he took a career-high 52 kickoff returns in 2013 and compiled 1,442 yards for a 27.7 average. He averaged a little more than 14 yards on a career-low 18 punt returns.

Hester isn't done quite yet, but at 31, it's getting close. It was time for this parting. He'll be beloved forever in Chicago, available for autographs and pictures for the next 50 years.

If anything, the finality of his exit will make Bears fans appreciate him even more. What he did as a returner will etch him into the collective memory of Chicago, and Bears fans across the world, as the best at what he did.

Hester had one of the best debuts -- five kick-return touchdowns, and one off a missed field goal -- as a rookie in 2006, and his return touchdown to start the Super Bowl was the only highlight of the rain-soaked loss to Indianapolis.

He followed up with six return scores in 2007 before being brought back to earth with a two-year drought. In 2010, he returned three punts for touchdowns for the Super Bowl contenders, and in 2011, he returned two punts and one kickoff. Last year, he got his last touchdown, an 81-yard punt return, in Washington.

While the touchdowns get the headlines, Hester set up how many more with long returns?

In 2011, I wrote about his game in a close win against the Carolina Panthers when he returned one punt for a 69-yard score and took a kick back 73 yards to presage a Matt Forte touchdown.

"It was like baseball, he pitched it right down the middle," Hester said of the punt return.

As for the kick, Hester explained part of his strategy: "It's a time thing. 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."

Is he a Hall of Famer? Probably not, but who cares? The memories Hester created in Chicago will last forever (thanks, YouTube!). Debates about Hall of Fame status are the ultimate in pointless arguments meant to devalue someone's career.

You simply can't compare Hester to anyone else, not even Prime Time, who is best known as a cover corner.

Personally, I like entertainers more than Hall of Famers.

Hester fed off the crowd, and he fed off his own greatness, and so did everyone else around him.

"I'm the type of player that when I'm having fun, I'm playing better," he said years ago. "When I play like a robot and I catch a pass and walk back to the huddle, I don't feed off that momentum."

When he wasn't feeling good, you could tell. From the curious fair catches to the yards lost running in circles, Hester could also radiate his own frustration.

With a real offense, the Bears will still miss the field position Hester often provided. And they will miss him feeding off his momentum. We all will.

The next time you hear "Soulja Boy" on the radio, before you change the station, I hope you pause for a second and think about Hester dancing in the end zone, ready to dazzle you.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.


MORE NFL HEADLINES