Devin Hester almost certainly would have cried.
The greatest kick returner in NFL history would have thanked his Bears teammates for delivering the blocks that freed him loose. He would have thanked his coaches for drawing up the play. He would have thanked his family for being his rock.
Instead, Hester sighed. He fell to the ground, absorbing the gut punch of despair. When he stood, he lowered his eyes and covered his head in his hands.
Near the line of scrimmage rested a yellow flag.
Teammate Craig Steltz was called for a foolish holding penalty away from the play, thereby nullifying Hester’s record-setting 62-yard punt return for a touchdown Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.
History would have to wait.
“It was like winning a prize,” Hester said, “and then getting it taken back from you.”
And, man, what a prize to almost win.
To some, the NFL’s all-time return touchdown record might come across as little more than football trivia. But to Hester, who is tied for first place with Hall of Famer Deion Sanders with 19 career return touchdowns, the next one will be special.
“That’s it,” said Hester, 31, who is in his eighth season with the Bears. “That’s pretty much as good as it gets.
“I don’t know if there’s any more records out there for me to break. This might be the only one that’s left in my position that I haven’t achieved yet.”
It’s not bragging if you’re telling the truth.
Despite its ups and downs, Hester’s career has been nothing short of remarkable. Already, he is the NFL’s all-time leader in combined kick return touchdowns (18) and punt return touchdowns (13), and he provided another career highlight when he returned a missed field goal 108 yards for a touchdown in 2006.
Oh, and Hester became the first player in NFL history to return the Super Bowl’s opening kick for a touchdown when he did so against the Indianapolis Colts.
As for this record? The all-time return touchdown record, which takes interceptions and fumble recoveries and everything else into account?
This is Deion’s record.
The same Deion who Hester regards with as much love as family. The same Deion who attended Hester’s Florida wedding in 2010 and has served as a mentor.
No wonder the record means so much to Hester.
“We’re real close,” Hester said as he dressed in the visitors’ locker room in St. Louis. “Deion texts me every day. He probably texted me already.
“He’s at the point where if anybody breaks his record, he’d rather it be me.”
And Hester is at the point where he knows the record is bigger than one returner. It’s about the entire special-teams unit that is on the field when history is made.
“We’re all rooting to get this record,” Hester said. “It’s something that’s in the back of our heads. As players, all 11 guys out there on the field – it’s like if I break it, we all break it. That’s how we feel about it.”
Almost always, when Hester has done something special, Steltz has been one of those 11 guys working toward the greater goal. Hester understands that fact as well as anyone, which is why he went out of his way to support Steltz instead of directing blame after the penalty that spoiled history.
No hard feelings.
“I’m past that,” Hester said. “Way past that. Once we left that field, that’s over and done.”
Sometimes, athletes seem to lack sincerity. This was not one of those times.
Earlier in his career, Hester admitted, it would have been harder to let go.
“It comes with a lot of experience,” Hester said. “Within five minutes, I was over it, where my first two years, I would have been dwelling on it the whole game, thinking about it. But now I’m past it.
“This return is probably more important to me than any other return. But over the past couple years, I’ve developed that mentality where things like this happen in the NFL. It’s just a part of football, you know?”
Football gives, and football takes away.
But Hester is determined. The record is sitting there, waiting to be set.
Can he seize it this season?
“Yeah,” Hester said. “We’ve got what, five games left? It just comes with opportunities. If I get more opportunities, hopefully I can break it.
“But right now, that’s not really important to us [as a team]. We’re trying to shoot for the playoffs. We’ve just got to keep sawing at the wood.”
And racing for the prize.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @tcmusick.