Bears great Devin Hester falls short of Hall of Fame in Year 1, but his time will come
Hester was not part of the 2022 Hall of Fame class that was announced Thursday, but it seems inevitable that the greatest return man in NFL history will get his moment eventually.
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Devin Hester is one of the Bears’ most exciting players in their century of existence and already has secured his spot as one of the franchise’s all-time greats.
He doesn’t need the validation of making the Hall of Fame, but it’s a safe bet that he’ll get it eventually, despite being left out when the 2022 class was announced Thursday. Hester would’ve been the first to make it primarily as a returner and had hoped for the ultimate validation of getting in on the first ballot.
His stature in Chicago has never been in question. It shouldn’t be questioned at large, either, and it seems inevitable that he’ll have his day in Canton, Ohio. This was his first of 20 years on the ballot, and it’s unlikely he’ll need that long to make it.
“First off congrats to the 2022 HOF [class], but this hurts for me not being a first-ballot [selection],” Hester posted on Twitter. “I really wanted this one bad, but life goes on and hopefully it will happen someday.”
Hester turned what is often a mundane, forgettable part of a game into the main event, and the Bears haven’t had anybody like him since. They’re hoping quarterback Justin Fields can bring that electricity back to Soldier Field.
Hester taking his spot as he awaited a punt or kickoff was as thrilling as anything has been in recent Chicago sports history. The anticipation was right there with Patrick Kane in the open ice, Derrick Rose at the top of the key or Frank Thomas in the batter’s box. Stop everything, or risk missing a moment.
Beyond the splashy memories of game-changing plays, the numbers back up Hester’s case for the Hall of Fame.
He owns the NFL record with 20 special-teams touchdowns in the regular season and added one of the league’s most spectacular highlights by running back the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI against the Colts.
“It didn’t matter where the hell they kicked it,” former teammate Alex Brown said. “He always had a chance. He was just that good.”
Hester was an All-Pro three times in his first five seasons and a second-teamer in another. Long after he’d been written off as finished, he made the Pro Bowl again with the Falcons at 32. His 11-season run meets the threshold of dominance to make the Hall of Fame.
The Bears certainly believed so when they named their top 100 players for the centennial celebration and ranked Hester No. 20.
The Hall of Fame voters were not fully convinced, though, and left Hester out while certifying an eight-man class. That group includes six players: Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli, Packers safety LeRoy Butler, Panthers linebacker Sam Mills, Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour, 49ers defensive tackle Bryant Young and Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch. They also inducted former ref Art McNally and coach Dick Vermeil.
In this class, only Butler earned more All-Pro selections (four) than Hester. Boselli, Seymour and Branch also had three.
“Once you get to the semifinalists’ list, all of those guys are deserving,” Seymour said when asked about Hester missing the cut. “All of those guys are super talented and hopefully all of them will get in, but it’s only five slots [for modern-era players]. That’s the unfortunate part, but they deserve their day.”
The presumed objection to Hester, of course, is that a returner’s impact on the game could never be large enough to warrant Hall of Fame induction. Perhaps if Hester had more success when the Bears tried him at wide receiver and running back, he would’ve had a better chance. Still, he added 3,427 rushing and receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in that endeavor.
But even as just a returner, he was so effective that he merits the exception. It seems likely the voters eventually will concede.