- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Devin Hester tried to explain it, he really did.
This was five years ago, a week after the Chicago Bears rookie had tied an 87-year-old NFL record with an exhilarating 108-yard return of a missed field goal for a touchdown against the Giants.
He shrugged in his seat. He squirmed a little.
"That's just my mentality," Hester said finally. "Whenever I get my hands on the ball I think big."
Like so many artists, Hester has difficulty articulating just what it is that makes him so great. Like Picasso, Jordan and Baryshnikov, he prefers to express himself through his work. If you have a few minutes to kill, fire up some of his scintillating runs on YouTube -- seriously, these are not diminishing returns.
Hester returned six kicks for touchdowns in 2006 -- three punts, two kickoffs and that missed field goal -- an NFL record. And then he tied it with six more in 2007. He came into the league as a 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback from the University of Miami, but today the Bears regularly deploy him as a wide receiver. He's still returning kicks, though, and in 2011 he's already brought back three.
The word "special" has become a devalued currency in sports, but Hester is worthy of the title. He is probably the most special special-teams player in the history of the National Football League.
The mounting numbers are indisputable:
• Only Hester's mentor, the ethereal Deion Sanders, has more returns for touchdowns -- one more, at 19 -- but nine of them came via interception returns, an opportunity Hester no longer has. Hester actually has 19, but the NFL's accounting system doesn't recognize the breathtaking 92-yard kickoff return against the Colts that opened Super Bowl XLI; Sanders does not have a postseason return.
• Hester is already the league's all-time official leader in kick returns, with 17 -- 12 on punts and five on kickoffs. Brian Mitchell is a distant second with 13.
• The sobering thing? Hester, 29, has achieved all of this in 87 games. Mitchell and Sanders played 223 games and 188 games, respectively.
At Miami, Hester returned a total of 81 kicks -- six of them for touchdowns. For the Bears, Hester has returned 333 kicks and scored those 17 touchdowns. So, based on a nine-year sample, there is better than a 1-in-20 chance Hester will take a kick to the house.
No wonder the Bears were one of six teams to reportedly vote against the new rule to move kickoffs to the 35-yard line. With quarterback Jay Cutler (broken thumb) out for the remainder of the regular season, Hester is even more critical in Chicago's bid for an NFC wild-card berth. The Bears are 7-4, tied with Detroit and Atlanta, but Hester is their unique advantage.
Jimmy Bell was his coach at Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach, Fla. He remembers Hester, a Parade All-American, getting nominated to play in the 2002 CaliFlorida Bowl and saying, "I'm going to be MVP."
An 85-yard kickoff return sealed the deal for Hester in Southern California. They kicked to him because they didn't know who he was; he zigzagged sharply -- you can see his signature, slashing style already -- and sailed into the end zone untouched. Back in Florida, they knew. Hester scored 26 touchdowns as a senior, but actually threw for more (five) than he returned.
"Ironically, he only had a few," said Bell, now the coach at Inlet Grove High School. "The coaches here in high school were smarter than the NFL coaches -- they wouldn't kick to him."
Slicing and dicing
Mel Gray was an elegant speedster who played for five NFL teams from 1986 to 1997. He amassed more than 13,000 total return yards, No. 3 on the all-time list. On nine occasions, he wound up in the end zone.
Gray, too, is baffled by the NFL strategy that seems to ignore Hester's prodigious gifts.
"He ran one back the other day against the Lions [a punt for 82 yards in Week 10], and I had no answer for it," Gray said from his Houston home. "They never kicked it to me like that. Why would you kick it to his ass and try to tackle him? It's just not very smart."
Clearly, Gray enjoys watching Hester play. Maybe because they share the No. 23.
"The way he hits the holes, the way he can change direction," Gray said, cackling fiercely. "He can really slice you. Man, he's outstanding. He reminds me of me!"
Hester has the prerequisite qualities of the classic return men -- speed, acceleration, vision and fearlessness -- but he also has 10 accomplished accomplices. Football is the most team-oriented of sports because it features the most moving parts. Most of his decisions, Hester said, are based on where his teammates are taking the men they are blocking. The Bears, like the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots, have a history of committing time and resources to special teams.
According to Dave Toub, Chicago's special-teams coordinator since 2004, Hester's success is a perfect tsunami of team scheme and dazzling individual skill -- a little secular science and a lot of genetic magic.
"He has a really good feel for the blocking," Toub said this week from the Bears' facility in Lake Forest, Ill. "When he starts in one direction, then cuts back, it leaves the coverage team on its heels. Where is he going? Very, very rarely does someone make a one-on-one tackle.
"If he has a chance to make you miss, you miss. That sudden acceleration is what separates him."
Toub acknowledged that Hester would rather run around people than through them, which is why he is far more dangerous on punt returns. His successful kick returns come on bounces to the outside and sweeps, not running through the wedge. And responding to scouts' observations that Hester -- who came into the league running a 4.33 40-yard dash -- had slowed to the 4.5 range, Toub offered this:
"He might have lost a step over time, but he's made up for it in terms of understanding coverages. The older he gets, the better he gets at decision-making."
To the layman, kick and punt returns look fairly random, like barely organized chaos. In truth, both sides have very specific plans when ball hits foot. The returner's job is to read that shifting, muscular matrix of 21 players wrestling each other for position and leverage, then find the precise angle to the exact spot that will deliver him through the hole when (and if) it briefly shows itself.
Eric Metcalf was tied with Hester for the record of 10 career punt returns for touchdowns before Hester took one back 69 yards against Carolina on Oct. 2.
"That's the thing people don't understand," Metcalf said. "It's not clear-cut when you're on the field, in the middle of it. It's a feel thing. You get a second to peek when the ball is in the air. You see where everyone is and after you catch it, you can kind of [extrapolate] where everyone is going to be. If you misjudge it they can get a big shot on you, which you're really trying to avoid. Have you ever seen Devin Hester get blown up?"
Metcalf said there were times when he would try to appear as though he were running faster than he was by pumping his arms and taking smaller steps.
"And then, when they think they've got you," Metcalf said, "you turn on your afterburners. You stop and cut under them. I see Hester doing that all the time. He's running, puts on the brakes, just breaks it back. He has the ability to slow down enough to make the cut, and then pick it back up. It's actually his deceleration that is so amazing."
With apologies to Dominique Wilkins, not only is Hester the Human Highlight Film, he is the Human Field Position Advantage. For the last five years, the Bears have ranked among the top three teams in average starting field position, averaging better than the 33.
Aside from his numerous physical assets, Gray said his most valuable skill was something he called unconscious competence.
"The ability to focus and ultimately knowing exactly how and when to make the right decision," he explained. "You have to judge it before it happens. Hester does that well. He also makes those midstream adjustments, those quick little shifts and bursts that you can't really teach. The guys that make guys miss -- like Barry Sanders -- are always running under control.
"The guys trying to tackle them aren't."
The X factor
The Seattle Seahawks' Leon Washington has taken seven kickoffs the distance, No. 2 on the all-time list behind Cleveland's Josh Cribbs. Like Gray and Metcalf, Washington said his success was an evolution.
"It takes a lifetime to build that special tool," Washington said from Seattle. "Devin grew up in Florida, making a thousand guys miss. So did I. We came out of high school the same year and played college ball in Florida. We always followed each other.
"The thing I remember is at the [NFL scouting] combine, where he had one of the fastest first 10 yards ever. That's an extreme advantage for him when he explodes off the ball."
Cribbs says that it's tougher to field a punt.
"Guys are in your face as you catch the ball, and you have to make instant moves, instant decisions," he said from Cleveland. "But once you get by that, it's easier to score."
Kickoffs are easier to catch, but harder to score on. The physics are more dangerous, too, since defenders have been running at top speed for half the field. On Cribbs' first career regular-season kick return, he was slammed from the front and the side as he entered the wedge.
"I tore my MCL, got a concussion -- and I dropped the ball," he said. "They told me later I made two tackles. I don't remember any of it. I just knew I had to get better."
Later that season he returned against the Lions. Wearing a knee brace, he took a kickoff 90 yards for the first score of his record total.
"I will juke you right, I will juke you left," Cribbs said. "I might have to stiff-arm you. I will force my will on the opponent. My will to succeed is greater than his. He has no choice but to falter."
Bell, Hester's high school coach, insists that Hester's biggest weapon is his vision.
"We taught him to run with his eyes," Bell said. "When he was playing quarterback, he'd be looking one way, but with his peripheral vision he was really looking the other way. It was the same with returns. He'd look one way, plant that foot hard and, one step later, he's going the other way.
"Even at 17, 18, he just had an innate ability to set up one guy and anticipate what the next guy is going to do."
The great kick returners say they are motivated by their task's daunting degree of difficulty.
"Especially the punt return," said Metcalf, now a Seattle-area high school track coach and Nike consultant. "The ball is hanging up for so long and the defense is thinking, 'I'm going to get 'em, I'm going to get 'em!' And you take it right back down and score."
He is laughing, maybe feeling those old endorphins bubbling to the surface.
"I never felt anything as good as that," Metcalf added, "and I mean anything. Yeah, you can write that."
The Peterson Principle
He has played only 11 games in the NFL, but Patrick Peterson is already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His size-12 Nike spikes were placed on display Tuesday afternoon in Canton, Ohio.
In Week 9, the Arizona Cardinals' rookie cornerback took a punt 99 yards to beat the St. Louis Rams in overtime. It was the second-longest punt return in league history. Three weeks later, the Rams watched last Sunday as he returned punt 80 yards for another score.
With four punt returns for scores -- achieved in only 31 attempts -- Peterson tied the single-season record. Only six players in the history of the league have four or more punt returns of at least 80 yards -- for their entire careers. Hester and Metcalf, with five each, are the only ones ahead of Peterson.
Peterson, the fifth overall pick in the draft, has played well at corner too, making 47 tackles and intercepting two passes. But the way things are lining up, he could break all of Hester's records -- in a matter of years.
Growing up, Peterson and his father attended Miami games and he came to view Hester as his favorite returner -- and, eventually, his idol.
"Devin Hester, hands down," Peterson said, laughing into the phone from the Cardinals' facility. "They recruited me and I got to meet him after a spring practice. I don't know if he remembers it, but it meant a lot to me. It's huge to even be in the same category. He probably has six more good years, so it's going to be pretty hard to catch him."
Peterson is so fluent, so confident with the ball in the air, he actually takes two peeks at the defense -- one, after he's located the ball, for a look at where the outside gunners are and, two, a few seconds later to see where the interior defenders are and how his blockers are handling them. Most returners take one sneak peek. Some don't take any.
Among the names mentioned most often by these eminent returners: Gale Sayers, Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, Brian Mitchell and Dante Hall. Only Leon Washington, apparently, has seen the future.
"Patrick Peterson," he noted. "He's the next one."
If Peterson's shoes are in the Hall of Fame, the question must be asked, is Hester headed there, too? There is only one pure special-teamer in Canton -- Jan Stenerud, remembered most fondly as a kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs. Based on the early returns of his peers, Hester is likely to be a viable return man for another four or five years.
That could put his all-time records far, far out of sight and mind. Washington, naturally, is in favor of Hester's enshrinement.
"No doubt about it," Washington said. "Look at his numbers; no one has done what he's done. People say, 'Special teams don't play enough plays.' They talked about [Buffalo's] Steve Tasker, but he didn't get in. We're talking about guys who purely change the game. I mean, in his first season, he practically got the Bears to the Super Bowl all by himself."
ESPN's John Clayton, like Peterson's shoes, is already in the Hall of Fame. Four years ago, he was installed in the writers' wing and is an annual voter.
"Odds of Devin making it aren't good," Clayton wrote in an email. "He's competing against 10- to 15-year vets with multiple trips to the Pro Bowl. I think he can make the final 15, but it's a tough battle for a special-teams success to beat out every-down players."
Metcalf begs to differ.
"I think he's going already," Metcalf said, his voice rising. "John should know how he changes the field position for the offense. I mean, how can you deny him what he's done in a short period? Tell John I said that."
Added Gray, "He could retire right now and be in the Hall of Fame. Look, we win games. Why would you eliminate an entire position? Who made that rule? He was the best at his craft. But we can't put him in? That's ridiculous."
The best case is made by his current coach.
"The Hall of Fame, as I understand it, is for people who changed the game at their position," Toub said. "No one changes a game like Devin Hester."
Greg Garber covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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