Devin Hester more than a special talent
Bears return specialist and NFL record-holder has personality to match skills
CHICAGO -- Devin Hester has a way with words.
There's a story I've been telling my friends for the past few months. I caught up with Hester at training camp in August one day, just as he was leaving the dining hall at Olivet Nazarene. We talked about a story idea that I never pursued, and chit-chatted about his training regimen that summer, how much he wanted to be great, not good, but great, this season.
And then we started talking about kids. His son, Devin Jr., was not yet a year old. I told him I was expecting a son in September
Like a lot of fathers, Hester glowed talking about his boy, bragging that the young Devin had 30 pairs of shoes already, even though he couldn't walk.
We made plans to talk again, and as he walked away, he turned around to give me some sage advice: "Have fun with the kid," he said. "Just don't watch him come out!"
And you can see why I love talking to Devin Hester, the best athlete in Chicago not named Derrick Rose.
I spend a lot of time listening to athletes talk. Some speak in sound bites, others say nothing at all. You can tell when someone's been coached what to say and how to say it. But you live for the few who speak from the heart, the guys who care about what comes out of their mouth. The best know that they aren't just speaking to reporters, but by proxy, the fans and those who love sports.
Most of my job relies on communication, relaying information through inside access. There are athletes in Chicago who are great at helping us out with a pithy quote. For the Bears, Lance Briggs is often fantastic. Tommie Harris too. Patrick Kane, Joakim Noah, Rose, Ryan Dempster, Paul Konerko. The all-time great is Ozzie Guillen. The list is longer than you'd think, but at the same time, it's never enough.
Just coming out of college, coaches told me I wasn't going to be nothing but a kickoff and punt returner. I wanted to earn a position in the league. But I'm here today to say I am a kickoff and punt returner, but at the same time, I'm the best that ever do it.” -- Devin Hester
Typically, no one says anything interesting in front of a podium unless they are so moved, they forget the cameras are behind them. Lou Piniella, when he retired, had such a moment, breaking down in tears.
Hester had a moment like that Monday night after the Bears' NFC North-clinching 40-14 win over the Vikings, and it stuck with me.
If I would've told you that one person cried talking to the media Monday night, odds are you would've guessed Brett Favre, who has replaced Dick Vermeil as the unofficial NFL spokesman for Kleenex.
But it was Hester, shedding real tears over breaking the NFL record with a 64-yard punt return -- his 14th kick return for a score, the 10th punt (the record doesn't include his 92-yard kickoff return in the Super Bowl or the 108-yard return of a missed field goal against the New York Giants) -- just minutes after nearly taking a kick back for a score. On a field perfect for ice skating, Hester was moving like a Blackhawk.
He's been so close to breaking the record this season, seemingly getting tripped by a kicker or punter every time he broke one long. He wanted this record. You could see the frustration whenever he failed. And you could see his teammates wanted it, too.
Afterward, he spoke raw and without regard for the crowd. It was a command performance.
Hester set an individual record Monday night, but he kept using "we" to describe the achievement. No one would've batted an eyelash for talking more about himself, and he did that too, but you could see he wasn't paying lip service to his teammates on the return units.
"They're, you know, I really love those guys," he said, pausing to cry in still silence. "I know the success is from them guys, and it's hard. I hate sitting here taking all the glory, and I wish those 10 guys were up here and y'all were asking them questions, because they deserve it. Those 10 guys, they wanted it badder than me and I wanted it bad. I could tell for some reason they wanted it badder than me, and that's why I'm glad God put me on a team like this."
After Hester choked up initially, a reporter asked him why he was so touched. A record is one thing, but the emotions seemed to be bottled up, and then -- like Hester streaking down a sideline -- exploding to the surface.
"It's just, you know, everything I'm thinking about is coming to me," he said.
"Just coming out of college, coaches told me I wasn't going to be nothing but a kickoff and punt returner. I wanted to earn a position in the league. But I'm here today to say I am a kickoff and punt returner, but at the same time, I'm the best that ever do it."
He then added, as if to correct himself for saying "I": "I can say today, the Chicago Bears, we're the best punt return team that ever do this."
Hester wasn't lying. Check out the pictures of him celebrating his return and scan the faces of his teammates. They are happier than he is.
Hester added a touchdown catch too, flexing to the crowd to celebrate, which showed his overall worth to the offense. That is all he ever wanted to do, to matter and make a difference, and not let anyone tell him he can't do it all.
Hester was a rookie in 2006, the most dangerous weapon in the NFL. In 2007, he set an NFL record by returning six kicks for touchdowns. After receiving a new contract, he went two full seasons without a touchdown return and started putting in more work as a receiver to mixed reviews.
Hester's Touchdown Returns
Devin Hester returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown on Sunday. Relive his record returns in photos. Gallery »
Just when people started saying Hester had lost his kick return radar for good, he returned a punt for a score against Green Bay in Week 3, and another for a score in a loss to Seattle to tie Brian Mitchell's record. It was a long two months to break the record, but it came at the right time.
"The return felt great, a big load off my back," he said.
The actual performance is what's worth discussing and emulating, and no one can deny that Hester's accomplishment is worthy of our praise. How amazing is his record?
It took Hester 74 games and 286 returns to get 14. It took Mitchell 223 games and 1,070 returns.
Those numbers suggest Hester could double his record. It's certainly possible.
"We're not going to stop on this one return," he said. "It's going to be plenty more. So don't dwell on this record-breaker. There's going to be a lot more, I guarantee you that."
I'm not getting into nonsensical Hall of Fame discussions, because to me, it's the most vapid of sports talk. It's all hypothetical and I prefer to dwell in the here and now, where Hester is, as he says, the best to ever do this.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.