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Monday, October 3, 2011
Devin Hester the real deal

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Devin Hester didn't plan his celebration Sunday. He's not that type of guy.

"I don't sit at home and think about what dance I'm doing in the end zone," said the Chicago Bears return man, who had "Any" stitched on the back of his left cleat and "Time" put on the right.

After all these years of watching Hester run, it's easy to believe him. He runs on instinct, and he does it better than anyone who has ever played the game. He's the Barry Sanders of returns.

In that sense, I'm pretty sure Hester is a genius, but I'm not sure which kind. I researched genius -- OK, I quickly Googled it -- and I've narrowed it down to "bodily-kinesthetic" genius (i.e. a gifted athlete) or a spatial genius (someone with the ability to recognize their relationship with space).

He's probably both.

Whatever the designation, Hester's innate ability to not only run fast but to find seams and holes and change speeds and directions is certainly unique, and it paid off once again Sunday, as he set the NFL record for punt-return touchdowns at 11, while adding to his all-purpose record at 15. In the Bears' 34-29 win over the Carolina Panthers, he returned a punt 69 yards for a score just one possession after returning a kickoff 73 yards to set up a Matt Forte touchdown.

He knew he had a chance because the punter, Jason Barker, mishit it.

Devin Hester
The Bears' Devin Hester set an NFL record with his 69-yard punt return for a touchdown on Sunday.

"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."

Hester's kick return, which ended with the always disappointing kicker-push-out-of-bounds tackle, started nine yards deep in the end zone. Hester said he's been instructed by his coaches to take everything out of the end zone. But once his (really outdated) personal anthem "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" winds down, he hears a clock ticking in his head.

"It's a time thing," he said Sunday. "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 nine 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."

Hester has arguably the best special teams coach in the league in Dave Toub (Hester calls him "Coach Dave" and raves about him and his blockers), but he said Monday he was also inspired by an article about Brian Mitchell, in which the ace returner lamented that he didn't really learn the intricacies of position until the end of his career.

"It let me know to look at how the blocking scheme is designed," he said. "Reading that article, I know I can improve my game while I'm still ahead."

I had pretty much assumed Hester had already set all the return records there were to be set -- I remember him crying after setting the all-purpose return record in Minnesota last year -- but he knew better. That's why, about 10 yards from the end zone, he decided to do a somersault. Then he did three, earning him a flag. It was pure exuberance. Nothing phony or contrived. But excessive celebration is a no-no in the No Fun League, and tongue-cluckers can obsess over the relative selfishness of a move. I doubt the Bears are criticizing Hester right now, or ever. I know Hester gets criticized for not being the long-awaited breakout receiver -- he only has seven catches this season in a bad offense -- but we've seen how dangerous he can be when he has room to run after a catch.

And as a returner, he is the embodiment of everything we love about an athlete. He is graceful and dominant, and aesthetically memorable. He is an entertainer.

So is it fair to penalize him for celebrating? Yes, but only with a flag. And Hester cites the NFL's premier grump as agreeing.

"I think it's fair," he said. "At the end of the day I know I can't keep flipping like that. At the same time, you only get one opportunity in a lifetime to break a record. And I don't want to break the record and make it seem like it was an ordinary touchdown.

"I seen Bill Belichick one day on TV saying, 'You should be happy when you score a touchdown. I want to see you celebrate.' I'm the type of player when I'm having fun, I'm playing better. When I play like a robot and I catch a pass and walk back to the huddle, I don't feed off that momentum. But when I go out and have fun and I show my true character, I make more plays. That's the type of player I am."

Bears coach Lovie Smith might look taciturn and sound monotone, but he's been known to race down the sidelines during a big play. He is a players' coach for a reason, because he loves that type of enthusiasm -- although tempering it a bit for Marion Barber's failed backflip.

"I can be an expert since I've seen every return Devin has had around here," Smith said. "But normally you can tell when he's really feeling it that day. He felt pretty good right away and he's almost unstoppable when he starts off like that."

For all the angst the Bears bring on a weekly basis, win or lose, there's always Hester, the somersaulting record-setting genius.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.