In the NFL, the special teams unit can have the same impact in a game as a bullpen or pinch-hitter in baseball, even a sixth man in basketball. At times the punter and coverage teams control the momentum of the game by controlling field position or the strong leg and accuracy of a place-kicker can put a game out of reach in its waning moments. Special teams are measured in three areas: the kicking game, kick coverage and the return game.
The latter responsibility falls to Chicago Bears return specialist Devin Hester, who has the uncanny ability to set the tone of a game and put it out of reach…in some cases simultaneously.
When moving it’s like he’s a riding a lightning bolt.
While at The University of Miami which has come to be known as “The U”, Hester was recruited as an athlete but was used as a receiver and running back, he would later make the switch to cornerback. As a freshman on special teams, Hester displayed the initial burst (4.35-40), and breakaway ability that separates good return men from the great ones. In his sophomore season, Hester would be named to the Walter Camp and Sporting News All-America teams, largely due to his success as a return man.
The Hurricane pipeline to the NFL has been one of the most productive since 1987. What separates its alumni from others is that many return to the school to train with one another and help players that are coming along. Hester was a direct beneficiary of such an encounter. Hester would befriend Deion Sanders through Miami alum Ed Reed, who at the time was Sanders teammate with the Baltimore Ravens. The twist here is that Sanders himself was a cornerback and return man for Florida State during the height of the bitter Miami/FSU rivalry. Once in the NFL, Sanders was known for his electrifying returns and showmanship via interception or punt return and sans making a tackle is considered one the greatest corners in history.
Sanders would prove to be a source of encouragement to Hester, as well as being given credit with taking his return game to another level. As a tribute to Sanders, Hester dubbed himself “Anytime” since the moniker “Primetime” was already taken.
Hester would finish his collegiate career with six touchdowns on six returns including a blocked punt return; he would also score a rushing and receiving touchdown. Becoming the only player in school history to play on the offensive, defensive, and special teams.
During most returns you see the return man make a move or three before breaking out. In Hester’s case sometimes one move is all that it takes. His approach is deliberate and without hesitation; you see very few cutbacks and even fewer hands on him.
Prior to playing his first game as a pro, Hester learned that he would be the Bears’ return specialist, Coach Lovie Smith drafted Hester as a corner back, but on an already deep secondary Smith saw bigger things for the second round pick.
In the 2006 season, he would make the most of his opportunities.
Hester had a total of six returns for touchdowns last season including a record tying 108-yard touchdown from a missed field goal against the New York Giants, and two kickoff returns for touchdowns against the St. Louis Rams.
Enjoying one of the great rookie seasons in recent memory, Hester was the second leading scorer on the team behind place-kicker Robbie Gould, the 13-3 Bears would advance to the Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts.
With the historical backdrop to the game already well publicized, Devin Hester, “Anytime” would show the world he could strike at anyplace and on any given stage.
Hester took the opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown capping off a record-setting season year for the young man from Riviera Beach, Fl.
Although the Bears season ended in a 29-17 defeat to the Colts, Hester would tie or break five NFL records and four team records, earn a spot on the Pro-Bowl roster and win the coveted Brian Piccolo award, given to a Bears player who possesses good character and work ethic.
In 2007, Hester picked up where he left off and even added a new wrinkle to his arsenal. Prior to the start of this season Hester was persuaded to line up some plays at wide receiver in addition to returning punts and kicks. So far Hester as a receiver has worked out pretty good; last week against the Minnesota Vikings Hester caught an 81-yard touchdown pass in addition to an 89-yard punt return becoming the first player to have two scores of 80+ yards in the same game. Yesterday in Philadelphia, he caught three passes for 41 yards including a 21-yard reception that kept the Bears’ game-winning drive alive.
Positions in sports evolve when there is someone who sets the standard. As time moves on, the talent levels increase and the bar is raised.
Gayle Sayers, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Rick Upchurch, Mel Gray, Eric Metcalf, Brian Mitchell, Deion Sanders, Desmond Howard and others have helped elevate the return game to where it is now.
Dante Hall, Reggie Bush and Devin Hester have taken it to the next level…
“Anytime” is running away with the record book in hand.