“Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!” That line was bellowed many a time by Chicago Bears radio play-by-play man Jeff Joniak, especially from 2006-2010 when the Monsters of the Midway were making legitimate runs toward championships. Hester electrified Bears fans and the nation for eight seasons with his unmatched ability to take kicks and punts to the house. We learned Thursday night in Atlanta that the threat of Hester, now a wily veteran, remains very real.
Hester is in his first year with the Falcons, and if Thursday’s game against Tampa Bay is any indication, he’s still got it. The speedster buried the Buccaneers with a punt return for a touchdown, his first career rushing touchdown, and recovered a fumble for good measure. The punt return for six points though is the story, of course.
It marked Hester’s first return for a score as a Falcon, but the 20th in his career. That means he is now the all-time leader in return touchdowns in the history of the NFL.
About halfway through the second quarter, Hester fielded a Bucs punt and scampered 62 yards until he made it into the history books. Overall, He has 14 career punt return touchdowns, five scores on kickoffs and one very memorable missed field goal return to stun the Giants in 2006. Hester was running back missed field goal attempts long before Auburn made it cool.
The previous record for return touchdowns was held by Deion Sanders, who has served as a mentor to Hester over the years. “Prime Time” started his career in Atlanta while Hester is finishing his there. Hester and Sanders cried tears of joy together during a postgame interview on NFL Network. The mutual respect between the two is refreshing. Sanders isn’t the only one who appreciates Hester’s feats. His accomplishments have been met with kudos from fellow players, media, and fans everywhere. They should be.
During his time with the Bears, Hester saved many of his top returns for the biggest of stages. Several came under the bright lights of Monday Night Football, including one against Arizona on the night Denny Green and company “let ’em off the hook.” Hester’s most watched return for a score isn’t even included in the running tally of twenty. The “Windy City Flyer” ran back the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI in front of a worldwide audience. If Hester is ever nervous about anything he certainly doesn’t show it. Perhaps, he just outruns any trepidation better than anyone ever.
After passing Sanders, it can now be said unequivocally that Hester is the best return man of all-time. The numbers tell us that. The question now is does Hester go from Chicago to Atlanta to Canton? Is he a Hall of Famer? The answer is: YES.
Not only has Hester racked up the highest total of returns for scores, but he’s done it in an age when NFL brass has consistently made the job of a return specialist more difficult. Moving up kickoffs and throwing flags at every turn have hampered the return game. Hester is undeterred. He eclipsed Sanders despite all the restrictions. In fact, he’d be pushing 25 return scores if not for a few returns he had with the Bears that were called back due to penalties far from the play.
Usually, special team players don’t have a prayer for Hall of Fame enshrinement, but Hester picked the right time to shine. Ray Guy, the trailblazing Raider, recently became the first punter ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He deserved to be. Guy was the best of the best. So is Hester. This year another Chicago great, Frank Thomas, became the first man to primarily serve as a designated hitter to land in Cooperstown. Specialists should rarely stand among the legends. Hester is one of the exceptions. The inductions of Thomas and especially Guy should bolster Hester’s chances.
For now, Hester has his sights set on the here and now. Atlanta is playing well with dreams of the Super Bowl on their mind. Hester stands to play an integral part of the Falcons season wherever it leads.
Hester’s latest magical run back had many elements of the surreal attached to it. The less than stellar match-up between the Falcons and Bucs on a Thursday night, gave the blowout of a game a mirage feel to it. Hester’s long-time Bears coach Lovie Smith, now the Tampa Bay head man, surprised us by kicking to his old player in the first place. Smith led Hester’s team during all but one of the first 19 returns for a score. Now Smith felt the business end of a weapon that he benefited from for years. Hester took Thursday’s punt back wearing jersey number 17 after donning 23 for all eight years with the Bears. All of these things just added to the mystique of Hester’s latest exploits.
Thursday night was a magical one for Hester, Sanders, Bears fans, Falcons fans, and the game of football when it needed something positive in the worst way. Another magic night, compliments of a man with a magical should-be Hall of Fame career. But of course, that’s all for later discussion. Right now, Devin Hester is without a doubt STILL ridiculous.