On Tuesday, Devin Hester announced his retirement from the NFL, leaving the game as the best return man in history and one of the more all-around exciting players in NFL history.
From his first game as a pro way back in 2006 to his final game in the playoffs last season, anytime he touched the ball it was must-see television. Over his 11 year career, Hester showed so many times that he was the definition of a player who always explosive for a big play.
When the Bears drafted him back in 2006 with a second round draft pick, many believed that the team had wasted too high of a draft pick on him because he was seen as being unable to consistently play at a certain position.
The team picked Hester to make up for the failure of not signing then free agent wide receiver Antwaan Randle EL who was seen as premiere playmaker at the time.
The pick paid off instantly as he returned an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first game of his career as the Bears beat the Green Bay Packers 26-0 in Week 1.
The 2006 Bears season wasn’t just exciting for their Super Bowl appearance, but for their dominant play during the season, including that of Hester who had a knack of making the big plays on the big stage. Many will remember his kick off return touchdown to open Super Bowl 41, but there were more during that season. four of his six return touchdowns in 2006 came in primetime games.
His second punt return of the season was the winning score against the Cardinals in the classic Monday Night comeback. He set a record for the longest touchdown ever as he returned a missed field goal against the Giants a then-record 108 yards for a touchdown. In the Bears final Monday Night appearance that season against the Rams, Hester returns two kick returns for touchdowns, including the second one being completely untouched on the runback.
There would be no sophomore slump for Hester in the 2007 season as he returned a punt for a touchdown in just the second game of the season, and had both another punt return and kick return touchdown called back due to penalties in the same game. He recorded six return touchdowns and also caught two touchdown passes as well. In three different games, Hester scored two touchdowns, two of those games the team won and the other they lost at the end of regulation. All six touchdowns that season were 55 yards or longer in length.
Hester would not post any return touchdowns during the 2008 and 2009 seasons and was actually relieved of his kickoff duties during that time as he was primarily used as a wide receiver.
While playing wide receiver, he did have some success during those season as he was used as the Bears deep threat in the offense. In those two seasons Hester caught six touchdowns passes and had over 650 receiving yards both seasons.
After two seasons without a return touchdown, Hester finally returned a punt for a touchdown in 2010 as he did in dramatic fashion against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football. He returned to form as he had two more punt returns for touchdowns that season with the third setting the record for most return touchdowns in a career with 14. The record-setter came on another Monday Night game against the Vikings and should have been his second of the game as he returned one earlier in the game that was called back due to a holding penalty.
From 2011 to 2016, Hester would have 5 more return touchdowns setting the all-time record for return touchdowns as a member of the Atlanta Falcons in 2014.
When he left the Bears following the 2013 season, he would play for three more teams including the Falcons, Ravens, and lastly the Seattle Seahawks. His best season would be the 2014 season as he had one punt return touchdown, two receiving touchdowns, and his only rushing touchdown of his career. During his 11 year career, he scored a combined 36 touchdowns between offense and special teams.
It was his time with the Bears where Hester showed how valuable of a football player he truly was. From the time he was both a wide receiver and return specialist in 2008, Hester recorded at least one play of 25 yards and longer or a touchdown in a game 34 times with the Bears.
Of his 12 receiving touchdowns, nine of them were 20 yards or longer. Finally, he scored two touchdowns in a game seven times during his career.
Now that he is retired, Hester will have to wait five years before he is eligible for the Hall of Fame. His value to the Bears and to the NFL is unheralded as he was a specialist at one of the hardest positions in the NFL.
NFL teams cycle through masses of players at kickoff and punt return positions hoping to find one that could break just one return touchdown. Even when away from the ball, Hester had an effect on field position as opposing teams would sacrifice good field position to keep the ball out of his hands. In a league that demands big plays, it was Hester that made them both in special teams and offense for the Bears, and a skill set to make those big plays won’t be seen again for a while.