When athletes walk away from their respective sports, why do we call it “retiring”? While for many it may be true that they have enough money to never have to work again, most of these cases of “retirement” have little to do with finances. This is not the same as the dream of an early retirement because you saved every commission you made from 20 years in sales, nor is it a gold watch and a “Thank you for your service” once you finally hit your pension. Instead, athletes know their careers start winding down from the very first moment they decided to play; the body is a ticking time bomb and most players aren’t mentally ready to accept the fact that their limbs no longer move like they used to.
At least Devin Hester can tell people that he left football with more than a few gallons in the tank. Whether that’s actually true or not, Hester has said he won’t be returning to the NFL, and his final game served up a pair of highlights that would fit in just as well with a reel from his historic rookie season. There was no pomp and circumstance, no season-long goodbye and no press conference. If it is the end of one of the most exciting players of the last decade, it is certainly a quiet one.
It was almost exactly a decade ago that Hester delivered one of the most unexpected plays in Super Bowl history, even if all it did was affirm the hype of how good he really was. Less than a year out of college, Hester found himself in Super Bowl XLI with his Chicago Bears facing Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts; and make no mistake that the 2006 Bears did belong to Hester despite the fact that he didn’t play any meaningful snaps on offense or defense. That was clear when Chicago won the toss and elected to receive even though it’s more common for teams to defer, and just before kickoff Phil Simms said it was a “blessing” for the Colts to lose the coin toss.
If you were given a million chances, you could still never encapsulate Simms in a moment more perfectly than that.
Adam Vinatieri’s kick was not what you’d expect from a future Hall of Famer, the Colts coverage was less efficient than trying to pop a zit while wearing ski gloves, but Hester’s return touchdown to open the game and give his underdog Bears a chance to win is still mesmerizing to this day. Fans had become enamored with him even though he never touched the ball as a rookie because football had never seen a player quite like Hester. Few players can say they were effective without the ball in their hands simply because they represented the possibility of danger.
That was as true of Hester before the Super Bowl as it was for a decade after.
Ranked as the top high school recruit in Florida in 2003, Hester had offers from every major college program except for USC and ultimately chose to build his NFL resume at Miami. Before his first game as a true freshman, the Canes were facing Louisiana Tech and he vocalized his intent to score a touchdown on his very first return, but it only went for the standard 20. He did back up his pre-game swagger a bit when his next return went for 53 but it would be his third career kickoff return that really showed the nation how special Hester is as an athlete; third-ranked Miami was hosting Florida in a matchup of top-20 teams and Hester took the opening kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown. The Canes went on to win 38-33 after having trailed 33-10 earlier in the game with Hester’s score as their only touchdown to that point.
During his time at The U, Hester had 81 total returns and scored six times. His punt return against Duke is the best thing you’ll see today. But NFL teams had to ask themselves if it was worth an early pick to select someone who may only contribute on three or four meaningful plays per game. Ultimately, one team decided that it was. The teams who didn’t should still be kicking themselves today.
The Bears drafted Hester in the second round even though he had not developed in any form or fashion as a wide receiver, running back or cornerback. They took him with the 57th overall pick knowing full well that he may never even play on offense or defense, which is even crazier than taking a kicker that early because at least kickers have myriad scoring opportunities. Returners aren’t traditionally supposed to have a lot of scoring opportunities, but Hester is not traditional.
As a rookie, Hester had three punt return touchdowns and two on kickoffs, both coming against the St. Louis Rams in Week 14. That may not seem like a lot of kickoff return touchdowns for someone with his reputation, but at that point in the season he had only returned six kicks; Hester scored on the eighth and 10th kickoff returns of his pro career. There’s a good, fascinating case to be made for Hester as the 2006 NFL MVP, after having led Chicago to their second Super Bowl in franchise history. He was so good in fact that we almost witnessed Rex Grossman beating Peyton Manning in a Super Bowl.
In 2007, he set a record with four punt return touchdowns in a single season, and he has since broken the record for most career punt return touchdowns with 14. He also had five kickoff return touchdowns, 16 receiving touchdowns, one rushing touchdown and one touchdown on a missed field goal attempt. Hester holds 10 NFL and 21 Chicago Bears records.
Hester looks to be leaving football in a similar way to how he started his college and pro careers. After he was released by the Baltimore Ravens last year, he must have considered that he had played the last game of his life. But the Seattle Seahawks were headed to the playoffs and needed assistance on returns after Tyler Lockett broke his leg. That’s when Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll called Hester, to which he replied, “You finally gave me a scholarship!”; Carroll was the head coach at USC when they were the only program to not offer him one.
In his final game, Seattle was in Atlanta facing the Falcons in the divisional round, which also happened to be the team Hester played for when he last made the Pro Bowl in 2014. Hester’s first kick return went for 50 yards and he looked as quick and elusive at 34 as he did at 18. With the Seahawks leading 10-7, Hester took a punt 80 yards down the field, but a controversial holding penalty negated what could have been his fantastic finish.
It wasn’t the way that Hester wanted to go out, it certainly didn’t feel like the way he should have gone out, but it does serve as a reminder for how unique he was and really how valuable he continues to be. It’s as though he was purebred to be the perfect punt returner, and that alone should earn him a spot in Canton to represent the best that position has ever seen, but the fact that he was also pretty good at a few other things makes him a well-deserving candidate for football canonization.
You can call it retiring, quitting, or just a career transition, the only thing that would be unfair is to say that Hester was fired. He’s still good enough to play and that’s why, if he is in fact done like he told his wife he is, it was the best decision for him to stop. It’s not the kind of retirement you see these days from athletes. But, then again, Devin Hester was never that much like anybody else.