Stevenson: Hester will be remembered as NFL's best return man

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

The highlights from covering Bears games for more than two decades remain in my mind.

Some are from seeing the Bears win in thrilling fashion. Others are from seeing some of the greatest athletes in the world.

Barry Sanders and Brett Favre will always top the career highlight list.

Sanders torched the Bears for most of a decade. He’d bring you to the edge of your seat every time he touched the football. The Lions’ superstar had the knack of taking your breath away on a 2-yard run because it should have been a 5-yard loss.

Favre, while he could still run and before he was taking ill-advised cellphone pictures, was similar. He was a magician with the ways he could escape trouble and fire a 30-yard strike that would have nailed a gnat. Bears defenders would stand, hands on hips, with that look of “What just happened?” while Favre ran downfield, grinning like a 7-year-old, to celebrate with a receiver.

The Bears had their stars as well. Brian Urlacher came with the ninth pick in the 2000 NFL Draft after playing safety at New Mexico and possessed otherworldly skills. The things he could do at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds were freakish. Not long into his NFL career, you knew you were watching a future Hall of Famer.

Later, Devin Hester came with the 57th pick in the 2006 draft. People wondered what former general manager Jerry Angelo had done, drafting a cornerback to play wide receiver that high.

The move, as it turned out, was pure genius.

Hester was electrifying. He changed games. He won games. He is the best return man in NFL history.

Now, it looks like Hester will be a former Bear. Hester said on Wednesday the team would not re-sign him, which the Bears later confirmed. Hester’s contract has expired and the Bears have other needs to address.

Hester tweeted his thanks to the Bears and to Chicago fans for his time in Chicago. That feeling goes both ways.

Hester supplied us returns that left us shaking our heads and asking “How did he do that?”

You wondered why teams even bothered kicking to him, while at the same time hoping they would act macho enough to go ahead and do it.

He returned five punts and kicks combined for touchdowns as a rookie, including the first-ever opening kickoff touchdown in a Super Bowl.

For an encore, he ran back six the next season. He has 19 combined – 13 punts, five kickoffs and one field goal – returns for touchdowns, tying Deion Sanders for the NFL mark. But let’s be real here, 10 of Deion’s return touchdowns came on nine interceptions and one fumble recovery.

Hester is the best, or maybe it’s “was” the best. At 31, he does not have the blazing speed he once had, but he likely will find another team and eventually hold the return record by himself.

Soldier Field used to buzz when opponents prepared to kick, as if the fans were expecting another highlight. Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat” blared through the stadium and Hester would start dancing, getting his groove on. Then, we all held our breaths.

It was fun. It was exhilarating. It was unforgettable.

• Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at joestevenson@shawmedia.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @nwh_JoePrepZone.

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