Hester's career in Chicago comes to an end

H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com Chicago's Devin Hester returns a kick- off against Minnesota Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013.

When free agency opens on March 11, the greatest returner of all-time will hit the open market and sign with a new team for the first time in his career.

Devin Hester all but confirmed his time in Chicago is over and he will not be re-signed. On NFL's "Total Access," Hester said, "From my knowledge, I know that Chicago wants to go a different route with me. All I can say is thanks to the fans and the support, always been great to me, always been loyal. Couldn't have weaned to play for a better city.

"... At the end of my career, I do want to retire as a Bear. But for right now, I know my time there, those guys are kind of parting ways from me."

Hester had a punt-return touchdown last season and averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return. He is one return touchdown away from setting a new NFL record. 

On his Facebook page, Hester wrote the following:

"To all my Chicago people...I can't thank you all enough for my time in Chicago. I've always said I wanted to retire a Chicago Bear but sometimes things don't work out the way we would like. Chicago will always hold a special place in my heart and if I am fortunate enough to break the return record, we will have all broken it together...no matter where I am. Thank you again and God Bless."

Hester was a second-round pick in the 2006 draft. He is a three-time Pro Bowler who also has 14 career receiving touchdowns. 

When asked about Hester at the Combine, Phil Emery simply responded, "He was productive. He was a productive kick returner. He did a good job." 

On Thursday, the Bears confirmed that Hester would not be re-signed and Emery released the following statement:

"For the past eight seasons we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization. While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers.

"Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person. He is a great teammate, husband and father. Devin represented the organization off-the-field as well as he did on it. When his career is over, he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family. We thank him for his dedication and wish him and his family all the best."

The Bears added former star CFL returner Chris Williams late last season, and he should enter the OTAs and training camp as the top option as a returner. The Bears also have Eric Weems and MIchael Ford to compete for the job in replacing Hester.

By re-signing Jeremiah Ratliff on Wednesday night, the Bears have already brought back 10 players with expiring contracts, but Hester won't be in that bunch. Once free agency begins, watch for the rumors connecting Hester to Tampa Bay, where he could reunite with Lovie Smith.

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