Bears great Devin Hester seeks another first in 2022 Hall of Fame vote

Hester aspires to be the first return man inducted into the Hall of Fame — and he wants the stamp of being a first-ballot selection.

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Devin Hester had 20 special teams touchdowns in the regular season and added another in Super Bowl XLI.

Devin Hester had 20 special teams touchdowns in the regular season and added another in Super Bowl XLI.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

LOS ANGELES — Exceptions should be made for exceptional talent, and Devin Hester certainly qualifies as such.

There’s no one better to become the first player to make the Hall of Fame as a return man, and he dominated in a way that merits the extra honor of being a first-ballot selection. He’s the greatest of all time, so much so that he transcended the role to be an absolute game-changer for the Bears from 2006 through 2013.

Hester has been supremely confident in his Hall of Fame status ever since retiring after the 2016; he’ll find out if voters validated that when the 2022 class is announced Thursday.

“For my career, that would be the icing on the cake,” he said as he hung out with Bears Hall of Famers at the team’s 100th season celebration in 2019. “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.”

Hester arguably has the most star power among the nominees, but competition is tight with 4-8 players expected to be inducted from a field that includes former Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour, Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson and Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli.

Longtime Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, who played for the Bears in 2014 and ’15, also is a finalist.

If somehow Hester is shut out this year, it seems inevitable that he’ll make it soon. When he does, he’ll be the Bears’ 28th inductee.

He always loomed as one of the NFL’s most dangerous players and earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors three times in his first five seasons. He added another Pro Bowl appearance with the Falcons at 32.

He scored 20 regular-season special-teams touchdowns — 14 on punts, five on kickoffs and one on a missed field goal — and that’s an NFL record that feels untouchable. That’s where he flexed well beyond the conventional value of a return man, and he did it at “one of the more dangerous positions,” he said.

In 2007, for example, Hester’s eight total touchdowns matched or exceeded Pro Bowl offensive players like Chad Johnson, Willis McGahee and Jason Witten. He outscored Larry Fitzgerald and Reggie Wayne with seven touchdowns in 2010.

“Do I feel like I’m the best that ever did it when it comes to kickoff and punt returns?” Hester said, pausing to give the question real consideration. “Honestly, I do.”

No one’s fighting him on that.

With his incredible speed, agility and field vision, it was considered a disappointment at the time that Hester couldn’t transfer that to become an unstoppable offensive player as well. But even then, he was productive when he dabbled in offense, and his 3,427 yards from scrimmage and 17 offensive touchdowns pad his case for Canton.

And his signature moment, one that surely flashed in the minds of voters when they made their choices, was running back the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI for a 92-yard touchdown when the Bears lost to the Colts.

The impact throughout his 10 seasons — in his final game, playing for the Seahawks in the playoffs in January 2017, he had kickoff returns of 50 and 78 yards and took a punt 80 yards — seems certain to get Hester in the Hall of Fame eventually. But he’s hoping for the prestige of being so surefire that he makes it this year.

“It’s not us being worried about making the Hall of Fame; it’s about whether or not we’re gonna be picked on the first ballot,” he told Sports Illustrated. “First-ballot Hall of Famers are Hall of Famers that you have no question they should be a Hall of Famer. ... I did things that have never been done before.”

And now, perhaps, he’ll pull off one more unprecedented feat.

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