Original art by Dmitry Samarov
Original art by Dmitry Samarov
Some athletes earn their nicknames. Others are granted by overwrought journalists or semi-illiterate color commentators. Rarely, however, do athletes get personal taglines. Yet, when Devin Hester returned his second kickoff for a touchdown against the Rams in Week 14 of the 2006 season (his sixth return TD of the year), Bears radio play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak did what just about anyone in his position might have done. Dropping all pretenses in the name of amazement, he let his announcer mask down and exclaimed the obvious, simple thought possible: “Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!”
Hester has had a few nicknames in his time–Sugar Foot, Anytime, The Windy City Flyer–but these cute allusions to his dynamic nature fail to capture what is essential about Hester’s game itself: the actual in-the-moment experience. To appreciate Devin Hester is to be dazzled, shocked, exhilarated, to speak in tongues as if being touched by the divine, or to roll around on the floor uncontrollably like a seizure victim after watching Tony Conrad’s The Flicker. He evokes otherworldly reactions because, simply, he is capable of otherworldly actions. Often, it appears that Devin Hester isn’t even playing football as we know it, but rather a mini-game inside the game, of which he is the crowned ruler.
Devin Hester’s entire existence is in many ways diametrically opposed to football’s vulgar tradition of large men running into even larger men. At 5’11” and 190 lbs., Hester is a modern day escape artist, a man whose evasive quickness and speed is better fit for a game of tag than it is for the freakishly large NFL. Consider the way he hesitates after receiving the ball, purposefully drawing defenders near him before shifting his angle, speed, and bursting through invisible holes quicker than a Milo Aukerman lunch order at Der Weinerschnitzel. Outside of special teams guru Dave Toub and the Bears consistently excellent and prideful special teams units, Hester’s success can largely be attributed to his uncanny ability to not only react instinctively, but to instinctively manipulate his opponents actions, angles, and footwork to his advantage. Considering that he does all of this in a manner of split seconds (including the catching and securing of a pigskin launched over 60 yards) amidst the spontaneous bedlam of special teams is all the more ridiculous. Even the most dynamic and unconventional running backs (e.g. LeSean McCoy) still have time to plot against a standstill defensive unit with knowledge of the play call serving as at least an outline of the forthcoming action, whereas Hester is thrust into an open field more akin to a fixed bayonet charge than the meticulous war simulation of NFL offenses where context is everything.
Professional football is conceived as a modern war game not only because of its hyper-violence and players-as-Universal-Soldiers tropes, but because fundamentally it is a battle between endless variations of premeditated systems. One of the game’s great exceptions to scripted offenses and predictable coverage systems, is special teams. What is essentially a routine gesture of ball exchanging and play restarting is, in fact, football’s great wild card, its foundation laid by Gale Sayers, Eric Metcalf, Mel Gray, Deion Sanders, Billy Johnson, Brian Mitchell. We are living in a golden age of return men. Active returners Joshua Cribbs and Leon Washington, both still under 30, are already atop the NFL’s all-time kick return touchdown list (with 8 and 7 TDs, respectively). Others, like Percy Harvin, Jacoby Ford, Danny Amendola, Wes Welker, DeSean Jackson, Darren Sproles, and Ted Ginn Jr., have proven themselves to be electrifying returners, a thrilling collection of speedsters and worthy supporting cast to Hester’s leading man. Arizona Cardinals rookie cornerback and special teams prodigy Patrick Peterson already threatens to break the single-season punt return touchdown record (of four, which he has already tied) and even cites fellow Floridian Hester among his idols–a fact itself that stands as a testament to the potent and burgeoning golden age before us, where special teams are no longer that sideshow purgatory for oddities, outcasts, and failed position players but a legitimate, aspirational endeavor, itself capable of being a main attraction.
The lifespan of the star return man, like most NFL careers, has often been short and sweet (just ask Dante Hall). Others, like Brian Mitchell, keep their head down with tortoise-like consistency, racking up countless yards and occasionally taking one all the way every election year. Then, of course, there is Hester, who has amassed a staggering 18 special teams touchdowns in his six-season career (19 TDs if you include his game-opening return in the 2006 Super Bowl). Still, while he entered the league with guns blazing, it hasn’t always been so easy. During the great drought of 2008-2010, as the Bears attempted to maximize Hester’s value (and justify his new contract) by converting him to wide receiver, he failed to return any kicks or punts for touchdowns. Detractors signaled for his end, ignoring not only his injury battles, but that he was unfairly stripped of kickoff duties for two seasons by the Bears as a protective measure on their multidisciplinary investment (both Danieal Manning and Johnny Knox were selected to the Pro Bowl as returners in his absence). It was only a matter of time, then, that Hester proved he had not gone away, but was simply hibernating.
Hester currently holds (or is tied for) at least nine NFL records, including: career punt return touchdowns (12), single-season special teams return touchdowns (six, in 2006 & 2007), and most impressively, his 18 combined career special teams return touchdowns, which dwarfs the previous record of 13 set by Brian Mitchell over 13 seasons. To put it in an even larger context, Hester is on the verge of breaking the NFL’s all-time record for total non-offensive touchdowns, 19, currently held by Hester’s childhood idol, Deion Sanders. Does this make Devin Hester the greatest return man of all time? Probably, but not definitively. A touchdown is the best possible outcome for a return, and no one does that better, ever, than Hester. Yet, there is more to being a return specialist than taking it all the way to the house. Proponents of advanced football statistics (or really anyone who is statistically inclined) could tell you that aside from his overwhelming number of perfect returns, historically Hester has been an otherwise average returner (though it is worth noting that he currently leads the league in yards per punt return, as he did last year). Field position is extremely important in football, and Hester’s average yardage, even with the huge returns, has been quite inconsistent, ranging from bad to exceptional. And yet, it is indisputable that he changes the way both kickers and punters approach their job, and the Bears have consistently ranked among the top teams in average starting field position over the last five years.
While the casual NFL fan accepts Hester’s greatness, football diehards and experts may be quick to point out the limited overall impact of returns, which do not take much time off the clock or wear out defenses (and are considerably less efficient and successful than your typical well-oiled NFL offense). This issue of specialization, whether you like it or not, is a necessary talking point for most fans and writers when discussing an athlete’s legacy. The special teams returner, like baseball’s middle reliever, is destined to be at a comparative disadvantage. Even the best kick returners (like Hester) cannot possibly measure up to the value of any full-time offensive or defensive player due to the limited and restrictive nature of special teams. Yet, those critical of Hester love to bring up his minimal impact as a wide receiver (while also ignoring his clearly inferior body type), flipping his unique success into the inevitable “incomplete player” straw man. The worst part about this, for any positional specialist in any sport, is the tendency to devalue or disregard a player for limitations that are not their own but rather those inflicted by the structure of the game they play. It’s how someone like Edgar Martinez, one of baseball’s best right-handed hitters over the course of two decades, is ignored, insulted, and ultimately forgotten because of his role as designated hitter. This is when we all collectively groan: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
Where other return men have burned out, coasted, or been converted, Hester has, despite some peaks and valleys, continued his one man quest to turn the most suicidal and formal of all football acts into a symbol of purity. Hester’s end game is that of perfection, of running great distances quickly and unscathed, all the way in to the end zone. It is a style of immaculate ambitions and actions, of excitement, of ridiculousness, and above all else, freedom. In the 1971 film and cult classic Vanishing Point, an elusive and mythical driver named Kowalski leads police on a chase from Denver to California, cheered on by a blind DJ named Super Soul who becomes his spiritual advisor on the airwaves. As the police continually fail to catch the brooding hero, Super Soul observes he is “the last American to whom speed means freedom of the soul.” While that line, as spoken by Cleavon Little, came 11 years before Devin Hester was born, I find it difficult not to think of when Hester breaks off another one of his trademark returns, where gear shifts and getting-away-from-the-cops speed are no longer cinematic tropes or symbols. It is even harder not to take it further and suggest that Hester’s speed and success are not just the freedom of his soul, but as fans, ours as well. In a league popularly characterized by the scrupulous plotting and excessive scheming of marker-wielding coordinators playing a variation of chess in an air-controlled skybox, Hester is one of the NFL’s truly transcendent superstars, an unlikely folk hero of humble beginnings who not only has, but also deserves, his own personal tagline.