PHOENIX — And the winner is … Devin Hester.
A year after he was unceremoniously cast away by the Bears, Hester is back in the Pro Bowl at 31 as an Atlanta Falcon, while the Bears are picking up the pieces after a terrible year on special teams helped pave the way for the ouster of general manager Phil Emery, coach Marc Trestman and his entire coaching staff.
Not that Hester would have been a Pro Bowl kick returner — or saved anybody’s job — had he stayed with the Bears. In fact, as disappointed as Hester was to be shown the door at Halas Hall, in the end Emery probably did him a huge favor.
“I’m focused on Atlanta. I’m happy where I’m at,” said Hester, who set an NFL record with his 20th career kick return touchdown with a 62-yard punt return against Lovie Smith’s Buccaneers on Sept. 18. “I’m back in the Pro bowl — that’s a good sign that shows I still have it.”
Though he has moved on, Hester knows his NFL identity always will be as a Chicago Bear — 19 return touchdowns, including three memorable returns on national television in his glorious 2006 rookie season: the 83-yard punt return to cap the “Miracle in the Desert”; the 108-yard field-goal return touchdown against the Giants; and the touchdown on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI.
“It’s just the way the league goes,” Hester said. “I’m just blessed to have had the eight years that I had [in Chicago]. I’m satisfied with the way it went. At the end of the day, I know Chicago is what made me who I am — let’s not kid ourselves about that. I intend on retiring as a Bear — that’s where my name and my legacy will always stand. But I’m going to finish out my career in Atlanta and hopefully finish it on top.”
The Bears’ demise, though, did not surprise him.
“No, it didn’t. I’m pretty sure it didn’t surprise you neither,” he said. “Everybody knew it, the way it went. I don’t know. I mean, it seemed like it was something that was just waiting to explode. But I’m in Atlanta. I watched it and I paid attention to it, but I didn’t worry about it, because I’m not in the locker room. It was the least of my concerns.”
There’s no doubt Hester feels a level of satisfaction after his abrupt departure from the Bears. He can’t reiterate enough that it was not his decision.
“I hate that people say that I decided to go another route. It wasn’t me,” Hester said. “I wasn’t offered a contract. I didn’t have a choice. Let’s get that clear. A lot of fans don’t understand that and don’t know the ins and outs, saying I left Chicago. I wanted to stay, but I wasn’t even given a contract. Not even an offer. Of course I had to go somewhere else.”
But he’s come to terms with the disappointment. Hester averaged 13.3 yards per punt return (best in the NFL among players with at least one return per game) — not including a 70-yard touchdown against the Cardinals that was nullified by a bogus facemask penalty. He led the NFL with 1,128 kick-return yards — including a 66-yard return against the Panthers — and was 11th in average (25.5 yards per return). But he also re-established himself as a wide receiver, with 38 receptions for 504 yards (13.3 yards per return) and two touchdowns. He also scored a touchdown on a 20-yard sweep.
He’s hoping it’s just the start in Atlanta.
“My [offensive] stats were more than they expected. So i’s probably going to be a bigger role for me next year hopefully,” Hester said. “I don’t have a lot of wear-and-tear on my body. I didn’t take a lot of reps in Chicago on offense, so my body’s still pretty fresh — more like a 27-year-old.”
Hester was one of several heroes of the Lovie Smith era that did not leave Chicago on their own terms. “There were some legends that didn’t end their career the way they wanted to,” he said. “The city of Chicago knows and disagrees with the situation they made. For a guy like Brian Urlacher, probably one of the top three or five names that ever played in Chicago — for his career to end like that, that’s tough.
Despite the disappointment of his own departure from the Bears, Hester still has a lot of respect for the organization.
“I’m cool with the Bears,” he said. “I love the McCaskeys. And I love the [front-office] people. I don’t have any [animosity]. It is what it is.”