Devin Hester is going out in a nice way.
Leaving town, that is.
He likely isn’t done with football, but he’s done here.
The famed kick returner’s farewell to Chicago was a guaranteed thing — you don’t pay old specialists $2.1 million a year when you have an entire defense to rebuild — but the way he would say goodbye wasn’t.
He must have learned from Brian Urlacher’s testy exit a year ago.
“I know that Chicago wants to go a different route,’’ Hester said Wednesday on NFL Network. ‘‘All I can say is thanks to the fans for their support. They’ve always been great to me, always been loyal. I couldn’t have played for a better city.’’
He added that he would like to come back for that curtain-dropping cameo bow: ‘‘At the end of my career, I do want to retire as a member of the Bears.’’
That won’t happen in this sentiment-free Bears world — unless Hester wants to pay his own travel expenses and buy a uniform. But at least Hester put on a happy front.
And how sweetly nostalgic was his goodbye for Bears fans who were thrilled during the shifty-hipped returner’s eight-year career? It pushed the recall button of joy.
Chicago, it seems, is abruptly playing the game called, ‘‘Which Hester Return Is Your Favorite?’’ It’s a tough game.
How about that missed field-goal attempt by the Giants in 2006 that Hester returned 108 yards for touchdown?
Or do you prefer the kickoff he returned for a TD on the opening play of Super Bowl XLI?
Or are you like me and have a special place for the punt he returned 83 yards in 2006 against the Cardinals with under three minutes to play that gave the Bears a 24-23 victory. The Bears’ offense was so pitiful that night that all the Cardinals had to do was punt away from Hester. But they couldn’t do it. They didn’t believe.
You’ll recall that that return, plus Urlacher’s insane 26 tackles, drove Cardinals coach Dennis Green around the bend to his ‘‘Crown their ass!’’ infamy.
Urlacher, as mentioned, went out nasty last year.
‘‘Take it or leave it,’’ is what he claimed Bears general manager Phil Emery told his agent during non-negotiations. ‘‘I probably would have stayed and played another year, but I was so mad at the way it was handled.’’
Maybe I’m the only one around who gets a kick out of Urlacher’s venom. But I do, and he kept it up even while discussing Hester’s departure.
“I was really surprised to hear the news,’’ Urlacher told FoxSports.com Thursday. “You think of Devin returning all those punts and kicks as a Bear. He’s going to break the record on another team, probably. It’s crazy to think he won’t be in a Bears uniform doing that.’’
Urlacher added, “It’s the loyalty factor. It’s just not there.”
It’s called the NFL, Brian. Love that you rail against it. But it won’t change.
So Hester leaves, hoping to end up with Lovie Smith down in Tampa. Don’t forget that Hester cried and threatened retirement when Smith was fired by the Bears in 2012.
I’m taking a stab here, but I’m betting Bears coach Marc Trestman hasn’t forgotten that Lovie-dovie moment, either. It could be why back in December, Emery quietly signed little-known returner Chris Williams for three years.
Who’s Williams? A teensy blur who played for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League and once ran a return back for a TD against Trestman’s Montreal Alouettes.
Hester leaves as perhaps the best return man the NFL has ever seen. Three Pro Bowls and three All-Pro selections say how rare a talent he was. His 19 career TD returns tie him with Deion Sanders, and there is talk that when (if) Hester breaks the record, that should be enough to make him the first return man elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I’m in the air on that. Hester failed as a wide receiver. No shame there. But is a special-teams ace ever as valuable as a full-time star?
Could be. And Hester would be the guy to prove it.
Something to remember — being a great returner is not just about speed. Hester ran a very swift 4.41 40 back in the day. But Williams, his possible replacement, ran a 4.39. Rondel Melendez — who? — ran a 4.24 in 1999. Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson ran a 4.29 in 2012. And this year, some guy named Dri Archer from Kent State ran a 4.26. Check with me later to see which of those men is a Hall candidate.
At Miami, Hester once long-jumped 24 feet, 2 inches. He ran a wind-aided 10.42 100 meters. That’s 109 yards. Like from end zone to end zone. Fast enough.