RETURN TO SPLENDOR FOR HESTER?
Return specialist finds out if he’s Hall of Famer tonight
PHOENIX — With camera flashes popping throughout the stadium, Devin Hester caught the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI at the 8-yard line, just outside the left numbers, cut up the left hash and scooted to the right hash. He broke away from Colts tacklers toward the right sideline at his own 40 and wasn’t touched until the 2-yard line, when he tumbled into the end zone.
It was then — and remains, 16 years later — the only opening kickoff ever returned for a touchdown at the Super Bowl.
“I had goose bumps,” Chiefs special-teams guru Dave
Toub, who was the Bears’ coordinator from 2004-12, said this week. “I still do now, just talking about it.”
That play, on the sport’s biggest stage, is the first line of Hester’s resume. It was, amazingly, his seventh touchdown return in 19 professional games. Hester finished his career with an NFL-record 20 touchdown returns — 14 punts, five kicks and a ridiculous runback of a field goal left short. All but one of those returns — the record-setter — came with the Bears, for whom he played from 2006-13.
He is unequivocally the greatest returner of all time.
Thursday night, he could make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Hall will announce its enshrinees during NFL Honors. Former Browns tackle Joe Thomas and former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, both first-year candidates, are considered the most likely to be chosen.
For the second year in a row, Hester is one of 15 modern-era finalists up for five spots. The selections are voted upon by the Hall’s 49-person committee, which is made up of media representatives from every NFL city and at-large selectors. Players must receive at least 80% of the vote.
Hester was one of the final players eliminated in last year’s vote. He wrote afterward that the snub hurt because “I really wanted this one bad.”
“It was hard because he was upset,” Toub said. “I told him it’s just a matter of time. He knows that.”
There’s reason to think he can reach the final five this season simply by not being a first-time candidate. Some voters reserve first-time honors for only the most special players in the sport.
“If he doesn’t get in this year, he’s gotta get in the following year,” Toub said. “It’s just a matter of time. I think this is his year, though.”
Working against Hester is the position he played. Or didn’t play.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn’t have a single member known specifically for returns. It houses only three players who were purely kicking specialists. Jan Stenerud was a first-ballot winner, while fellow kicker Morten Andersen was picked in Year 5. Punter Ray Guy had to be put in as a senior candidate after he was passed over for 25 years.
“Hopefully there’s going to be another one,” Toub said. “He definitely deserves it.”
Eagles kicker Jake Elliott wasn’t a football fanatic growing up. He was interested in tennis, where he was the No. 1 player at Lyons Township. Even then, though, he knew to appreciate Hester.
“He’s gotta be [a Hall of Famer], no doubt,” he said. “I wasn’t a huge NFL fan growing up, but I remember how electric he was. That Super Bowl memory from him is one that definitely sticks with me.”
Bears special-teams coordinator Richard Hightower said last month that Hester doesn’t get enough credit.
“It’s phenomenal what he was able to do,” he said, “and it’s still mind-boggling to see how good he was when you sit down and you study it.”
Hester’s contributions are more easily understood than punts or kicks.
“Touchdowns — it’s plain as day, right?” Toub said. “Either you get a touchdown or you don’t. He was so exciting. The crowd, when he was back there, they were chanting his name.”
They will again in Canton, Ohio, this August, if Hester becomes the 31st Bears player named to the Hall.