There will never be another returner like Devin Hester. No one will ever have a chance.
After years of incentivizing touchbacks, the NFL has made it clear it will continue to examine a play many deem the most dangerous in the game. The league, however, hasn’t ruled out its elimination altogether. A new NCAA rule, set to debut this year, allows kickoff returners to call a fair catch anywhere inside the 25-yard line and receive credit for a touchback.
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Hester, who along with running back Matt Forte signed a one-day contract to retire as a member of the Bears on Monday, understands the safety concerns. But the greatest return man of all time struggles with the idea of kickoffs someday becoming an artifact.
“They’re nitpicking at it and finding all types of excuses why it shouldn’t be in the game,” said Hester. “You can tell it’s starting to slowly vanish. But at the end of the day, kickoff and punt return is one of the key assets to this ballgame.
“It’s just football, man. You have to let these guys play football. At the end of the day, it brings a lot of excitement to the fans out there.”
It was never more exciting than when Hester returned the ball. In 11 NFL seasons — including eight (2006-13) with the Bears — Hester had 20 returns for touchdowns, an NFL record. He returned 14 punts, five kickoffs and one field goal for a score.
In a crowd that included Ryan Pace, quarterback Mitch Trubisky, running back Jordan Howard, former cornerback Charles Tillman and others, the Bears showed highlights of both Hester and Forte at Halas Hall. None was more powerful than Hester’s kickoff-return touchdown to open Super Bowl XLI.
“You see guys every year run 4.2, 4.3[-second 40-yard dashes],” said Hester, who spends his time coaching his sons’ youth football teams in Florida. “But this game of football is not based all on speed. You have to have the awareness, the vision, the knowledge to set up blocks, the understanding of creating a lane.”
If he is voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day, Hester will be the first to earn the honor based solely on his return prowess. He believes he deserves to be there, a sentiment echoed by Forte and chairman George McCaskey.
“The definition of a Hall of Famer is somebody that changed the
game. . .” Forte said. “I don’t think there will ever be another one like that.”
Forte understands the dangers of the kickoff.
“At the same time, everybody knows what kind of sport football is when you get into it,” said Forte, who wants to try television broadcasting. “This isn’t a nice sport. I’m not out here to be your friend.”
Forte, too, was the last of a dying breed.
During his 10-year career, Forte touched the ball 2,910 times, the most of any skill-position player in the NFL during that time, and totaled a league-high 14,468 yards from scrimmage. Only one other running back, Frank Gore, came within 283 touches of Forte’s mark.
Forte’s versatility — he was as comfortable split wide as he was taking a handoff — and his dependability became an anomaly in a league that focuses more on specialization every year.
When the Bears let him leave for a two-year stint with the Jets after the 2015 season, he left a T-shirt hanging in his locker that read, simply, “Workhorse.” Few left in the league can make the same claim.
If Hester was beloved for his lighting-quick bursts of return genius, Forte was the opposite: a steady, consistent presence that was rarely off the field.
On Monday, they exited the sport together.