Devin Hester, who in his time with the Bears became perhaps the greatest returner of all time, retired Tuesday.
“To all the Bears fans, you brought me in and made a Florida boy feel at home in the Midwest from Day 1,” he wrote on Twtter. “I grew into a man, built a family and became who I am today in the city of Chicago. I’ll always remember the noise y’all made whenever I hit the open turf at Soldier (Field) — never heard anything quite like it. I’d also like to especially thank coach Lovie Smith for taking a chance on me in the draft and getting this whole thing started.”
The Bears drafted Hester in the second round of the 2006 draft out of the University of Miami. They originally planned for him to be a cornerback who specialized in returns, but eventually moved him to receiver, with mixed results. Hester was targeted 91 times in both 2008 and 2009, recording 665 and 757 yards, respectively. He clashed at times with quarterback Jay Cutler.
Hester had 13 punt returns and six kick returnsfor touchdowns from 2006-13 with the Bears. His return of the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI for a touchdown was one of the greatest moments in franchise history.
The Bears let him walk via free agency at the end of the 2013 season. The next year, he set the record for most return touchdowns in NFL history by bringing back his 20th for the Falcons. The Falcons released him in July 2016. He played for the Ravens and Seahawks last year, but didn’t appear this season.The retirement was not surprising. Hester said after the Seahawks lost a playoff game last year that he’d probably played his last snap.
Hester has a case for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a returner alone, but it’s unclear how voters would treat someone with so specialized a skill. There are only two full-time placekickers and one punter enshrined in Canton, Ohio. Hester wrote that “hopefully the next time I see y’all it’ll be in Canton.”
Bears coach John Fox said Hester is “up there in the elite for sure … He changed games.” Fox said he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
“I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to play in the NFL, and I walk away satisfied with the impact I was able to have on and off the field,” he wrote. “Growing up, nobody thought I would end up in this position, and at the end of the day I owe it to those who believed in me and helped me on my path.”
It took some creativity: Bears director of college scouting Mark Sadowski, then a scout, suggested the Bears travel to Miami to work out Hester. He had not started on offense or defense, but was a threat on returns.
“He’s the fastest guy I’ve ever seen with the ball in his hands,”Sadowskisaid earlier this year.
Hester’s reputation has seeped into current Bears. Running back Tarik Cohen, who returned a punt for a touchdown against the 49ers earlier this month, said he prepared to be a punt returner by watching film of the former Bears great. Growing up, he liked using him in “Madden” video games. Cohen said he hopes to meet him someday.
“I’m a big fan of him,” he said.