Coach's quick thinking keyed Hester's return
The authors of the two longest plays in NFL history, Devin Hester and Nathan Vasher have a strange, one-in-a-million bond, writes Greg Garber.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Devin Hester and Nathan Vasher stand side-by side in the end zone at the Walter Payton Center, the Chicago Bears' indoor practice facility that gives off a warm, woody 1920s Adirondack boat house vibe.
It's Thursday afternoon, already darkening outside, and Vasher is animated, talking about plans for his 25th birthday, which falls on Friday.
Hester is listed at 5-foot-11, 189 pounds, while Vasher is a similarly modest 5-10, 180. Actually, they both seem smaller. Hester is a rookie cornerback from Miami and Vasher is a third-year corner from Texas. They are both breathtakingly fast. They spend hours together in the same second-floor meeting room. Hester has some fine dreadlocks going, while Vasher has a more conventional buzz cut, but, clearly, they are two peas in a pod. Even their names are symmetrical.
After Sunday night's cathartic game at Giants Stadium, they have a strange, one-in-a-million bond.
Hester and Vasher are the authors of the two longest plays in the 87-year history of the NFL, matching 108-yard touchdown returns after missed 52-yard field goals. With the considerable help of 10 other Bears special teams players, they executed the deadly perfect runback 365 days apart. Hester reached the end zone against the Giants on Nov. 12, 2006 and Vasher burned the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 13, 2005.
"Mine was definitely 108," Vasher tells Hester, re-enacting his over-the-shoulder catch. "It might have been 108.5. See, you snuck up on them. With mine, I took it out that way, swooped all the way around and kept going.
"Like a great song or any kind of movie trilogy, [the sequel] is never as good as the original."
Hester laughs. "I've got to give it to you," he tells Vasher. "You worked harder for yours."
Eight Bears players, five of them starters, were on the field for both plays: defensive ends Alex Brown and Israel Idonije, defensive tackles Alfonso Boone and Ian Scott, starting linebackers Brian Urlacher -- yes, that Brian Urlacher -- and Hunter Hillenmeyer, cornerback Charles Tillman and strong safety Todd Johnson.
Think about it: For those of you who don't run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, 108 yards is a long, long way. That's 324 feet, 3,888 inches -- a vast distance in the violent arena of the NFL. How did they do it?
When Giants place-kicker Jay Feely trotted onto the field to line up a fourth-quarter 52-yard field goal attempt late Sunday night, Chicago's special teams coach smelled a rat. Dave Toub thought the Giants were going to attempt a pooch punt and were simply trying to eliminate the chance of a return. As a precaution, he moved Hester -- who lines up as the cornerback for the field goal block team -- back to the end zone.
Hester took the ball two yards from the back of the end zone and well, he didn't do anything. His casual body language suggested he was about to take a knee, a logical course of action since, by rule, the Bears would have gotten the ball at the line of scrimmage, their 34-yard-line. But then Hester did the unthinkable. As the Giants players relaxed, Hester bolted out of the end zone.
"I was just messing with them," Hester said. "I kind of wanted to show them that I was getting ready to take a knee, then kind of dropped my head and took a glance over there to make it seem like the play was over.
"I guess they reacted to it as if the play was over."
That's exactly how it happened.
"Three or four of them came down a little bit on a slight jog," Hester said. "But a majority of them just kind of stopped and kind of started jogging towards the sideline."
Toub was, admittedly, momentarily horrified. No, no, however, in a second's time, turned to go, go. Toub's next words were strictly protocol. He screamed, "Bench alert," which instructed the blockers to set up a wedge on the side with their bench. The thinking is that in that situation the opposing team will relax after the field goal attempt and tend to drift toward its own bench, thus opening up the field.
Urlacher, one of the best defensive players in the league, made the initial block that allowed Hester to get to the edge of the wall. Boone, a defensive tackle, made a key block and Tillman got a piece of Feely. The only serious threat to Hester was Giants center Shaun O'Hara, but Tillman and Hillenmeyer buried him.
Hester went all the way down the right sideline. Untouched. Wow.
In retrospect, the hesitation by Hester was the key to the play. But don't discount the fact that the team the Giants had on the field was not particularly adept at tackling. Since they were attempting a field goal, there were spare tight ends, guards and tackles on the line, and when their roles turned from offense to defense -- in a flash -- they were ill-prepared.
Hester, a second-round draft choice, returned six kicks for touchdowns in three seasons with the Hurricanes. He has searing 4.3 speed and now has executed three touchdown runbacks in just nine professional games. Hester burned the Packers on Sept. 10 with an 84-yard punt return in his NFL debut and on Oct. 16 took a punt 83 yards for a score against the Cardinals. They are the second- and third-longest punt returns in the NFL this season.
If Hester can manage one more touchdown return in the remaining seven games, he will tie the NFL record for rookies; Green Bay's Travis Williams had four kickoff returns for scores in 1967 and Jack Christiansen of Detroit returned four punts for touchdowns in 1951. Hester's odds will improve when the Bears start letting him return kickoffs -- something Toub promises will happen soon.
Although Vasher's return against the 49ers was considerably more difficult and circuitous (he might have run 140 yards and needed a 360-degree spin to shake free), according to the record keepers, it added up to 108 yards -- just like Hester's.
The orange No. 31 that Vasher wore on his end-to-end dash is now on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The Hall of Fame already has contacted the Bears, seeking a piece of Hester's history, perhaps the ball or the jersey.
Vasher's teammates, instigated by Hillenmeyer, have teased that the Hall of Fame will soon be returning his jersey and replace it with Hester's. On Wednesday, Hester told Chicago reporters that he would be reluctant to part with the jersey or the ball.
Which begs the question: Which one of their returns was longer? They couldn't have both been exactly 108 yards long.
One of them, perhaps by inches, owns the longest play in NFL history.
"I think we need to get all the measuring tools out and take a look at that," Vasher said, trying to keep a straight face. "Mine was definitely longer."
Hester doesn't think so. Still
"I might just go ahead and let them put my jersey in the Hall of Fame," he told Vasher, "right by yours."
Vasher smiled. "There's room, should be a little bit of room."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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