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Former Bears star Devin Hester ready to stand among legends, Hall of Famers

The most electric return man in NFL history deserves to be the first one enshrined in Canton.

Former Chicago Bears running back Devin Hester watches the action from the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) ORG XMIT: CXB1
Hester was as good at his specialty as anyone else on the Bears’ mid-2000s teams was at theirs, and he knows it.
AP Photos

It’s hard to stand among football legends and declare yourself one of them.

Unless you know it’s true.

As Hall of Famers paraded down the orange carpet Friday to open the Bears’ 100th season celebration, Devin Hester tried to match their stature. He’s not there yet, but he’s certain it’s coming. He believes himself to have been as good at his job as Brian Urlacher and the others were at theirs.

“Do I feel like I’m the best that ever did it when it comes to kickoff and punt returns?” Hester pondered. “Honestly, I do.”

No one around here would disagree, and Hester got as raucous a welcome as any of the other greats when Bears play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak introduced him to a packed exhibit hall at the Stephens Convention Center with his signature call of, “Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!”

They blasted the old Soulja Boy hit that Hester danced to on the field, and he gave the crowd the performance they wanted. No other man alive could make that song seem cool again in 2019.

The Bears haven’t had a player as exhilarating as Hester since they let him go in 2014 — although Tarik Cohen is making a run at it — and the NFL probably won’t ever see another return man so overwhelming, given Hester’s unparalleled elusiveness and the recent rule changes.

The threat that Hester posed gave extra incentive to the great Bears defenses of the mid-2000s. Third-down stops carried the possibility that Hester could turn the ensuing punt into instant points, and players raced to the sideline to get a good view of whatever came next.

“If you forced a punt inside the 10 and they’ve got to get it out quick — those opportunities, you knew Devin had a chance,” former Bears defensive end Alex Brown said. “But as you started to understand Devin, it didn’t matter where the hell they kicked it. He always had a chance. He was just that good.”

True validation beyond Chicago and Hester’s former teammates could come as early as 2022, when he will become eligible for the Hall of Fame. If he gets in — Hester would object to the use of “if” — he would be the first player to do so as primarily a return man. It seems appropriate that he’d be the one.

He dreams of that.

He eyed the gold jackets as they went past him in the convention center. Mike Ditka. Mike Singletary. Dick Butkus. Richard Dent. What he wouldn’t give to hear one of them whisper in his ear what he’s been telling himself all along: that he’s next.

“I’m just walking among living legends,” Hester said. “I haven’t talked to any of them yet [at the convention]. I just got here, but hopefully that opportunity will come for me.”

Whether he gets that affirmation this weekend, Hester has never doubted his candidacy. Others did. He still remembers draft analysts saying he’d never replicate his college success against NFL athletes, and he loves how emphatically he proved them wrong.

Was he any less scary in his prime than Urlacher was? In those days, opposing special teams coaches slept just as fitfully as offensive coordinators did.

Hester remains far and away the NFL’s all-time leader with 20 total special teams touchdowns, and he had a decent side hustle in the offense with 3,427 yards and 17 touchdowns as a receiver and rusher. He was a three-time All-Pro for the Bears.

And in a sport that magnifies big moments like no other, he unleashed a 92-yard beauty of a kickoff return to open Super Bowl XLI.

“It still feels like yesterday,” said Hester, now 36 and living in Florida. “They still replay it here and there. They talk about it a lot.”

Now comes the question of whether they’ll keep talking about it, and more specifically, who will keep talking about him. He can only wait, but he seems at ease about the eventual media vote. He’s far more eager than anxious. He has read the articles and seen the tweets, but mostly it’s just amusement to him. If anything, he’s curious whether he’ll get in on the first ballot.

“Every now and then, I get blogs pop up on my phone about whether or not I’m worthy,” he said. “It’s more positive than negative.

“For my career, it would be the icing on the cake. Every player that plays football wants to be one of the best to ever do it. When you get the Hall of Fame vote, you can say that.”

No need to wait until then. He knows it now.