From Prime Time to Anytime: How Hester and His Bond With Sanders Catapulted Him to Stardom
Photo Credit: NBC Sports Chicago
In the 2006 Super Bowl, Chicago Bears kickoff returner Devin Hester stood back awaiting what he knew would be his first and only opportunity to put his stamp on the game.
“Tony Dungy, in his press conferences, the news the whole week was that he pretty much made up his mind that he wasn’t going to kick it to me pretty much the whole game,” Hester said. “To be out there and win the coin toss, and to have it in the back of your mind that he wasn’t going to kick it where I was going to return it was a shock.
“From that point on I knew I had one opportunity to make something happen because I knew even if I got a 30 or 40-yard return that it was the last time I would touch the ball, so I just wanted to make the best of it.”
The return wasn’t 40 or even 30 yards, but a 92-yard scamper — the first opening Super Bowl kick TD return in NFL history.
At the University of Miami, Hester was versatile, playing in all three phases of the game and hit the ground running as a return man.
In the second week of his freshman season, the football world was introduced to Hester on a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Florida.
Hester used his trademark speed to average 28.7 yards per return that season. Speed is something he honed back in his early track and field days in grade school.
At Suncoast High School, Hester received All-America accolades and also ranked second in the country in the long jump.
The different sports paid dividends. In his sophomore season, Hester was named a Walter Camp All-American and first-team All ACC, and was considered the most dangerous return man in the nation.
His four kickoff returns were tied for the most in school history with Santana Moss. He was the first to return two punts for touchdowns in a single game. He did all this while winning the 2004 Big East indoor jump title as a member of the Hurricanes’ track and field team.
Recording four interceptions as well, he took pride in his listed position as a cornerback. Ever since he could remember, the Florida native idolized Deion Sanders, and wanted to emulate everything the two-time Super Bowl champion did when he was a kid.
“Growing up we never got to meet professional football players or stars or anybody of that caliber,” Hester said. “My first pop warner touchdown I was high stepping [like Sanders], he was one of my many idols.”
A dream came true one day, when in college he received a phone call from Sanders himself. The first of many to come as Hester began to build his own legacy.
“I just told him ‘I’m glad to hear your voice man, I’ve been watching you ever since day one,'” Hester said. “I shared a lot of things [with him] that I had, the speed, the vision, the playmaking ability, a great athlete so it was just kind of the type of words that we kind of share the same things as a football player.”
While his sophomore year was one to remember, Hester barely played his junior year making it one to forget. Hester found himself at odds with Hurricane coaches, which forced him to the bench often.
Hester however, was not embraced by the Chicago fans when he was drafted. Local media, and fans questioned head coach Lovie Smith and general Manager Jerry Angelo choosing to draft a cornerback with pick No.57 in the second round.
The University of Miami alum, though understanding where Bears fans were coming from, used the skepticism and doubt as fuel.
“I can understand the fans you know in that situation when they you know think ‘He didn’t really play a lot last year, why would we take a cornerback in the second round that didn’t play a lot,'” Hester said. “I can understand that situation but at the same time I knew the type of player I was and just wanted to go out and prove em’ wrong that what happened to me in my junior year of college was just some miscommunication between me and the coaches, I know if I played my junior year it would’ve been a different story.”
In his rookie season, Hester exploded onto the NFL scene. The player fans didn’t want led the league in kickoff return touchdowns (2), total punt returns (47), punt return yards (600), and punts returned for touchdowns (3). Hester also returned a field goal on an 108-yard play which at the time was the longest in league history.
His rookie season culminated with his Super Bowl kickoff return for a touchdown.
His sophomore NFL season saw a change in scenery for No.23. Head coach Lovie Smith knew that to win, Hester needed to have the ball and switching him to wide receiver would do just that. This disappointed Hester, as this meant he couldn’t emulate Sanders.
“I wanted to be a corner,” Hester said. “But by the end of my rookie season, teams were starting to kick away from me and coach Smith came up to me and said ‘Look we know defense is your passion and where your heart is but, we just feel you’re the best player on our team with the ball in your hands and we got a figure out a way to get the ball in your hands.'”
Hester soon accepted the change, getting more involved with the Bears overall. In his first season at wide receiver, Hester tallied 20 receptions for 299 yards and two scores. Accompanied by two kickoff returns for touchdowns and an NFL record four punt returns taken to the promise land.
Hester recorded 20 or more receptions in seven of his 11 seasons combined with 3,311 receiving yards, and 16 touchdowns. Additionally, he instilled fear on kickoff and punt units across the league. In five of those 11 seasons, he led the league in more than two special team statistical categories. He had the most kick returns, kick return yards, and touchdowns twice, and added another two seasons as the leader in punt return yards and return yard average, and led the pack for punts return touchdowns three times.
Hester left the Bears in free agency tied with Sanders for the most punt returns in NFL history (13).
Dawning an Atlanta Falcons uniform in the 2014 season, Hester looked to break the tie he had with his idol.
Hester trotted his way out to the middle of the gridiron to field a punt as he had done thousands of times before. He secured the punt and darted 62 yards paying tribute to Sanders with the high step into the end zone.
What happened next for Hester, was a swarm of emotion. He had become the greatest punt returner in NFL history with Sanders there to witness.
“It felt great to be out there, to have an idol I looked up to and play in the stadium that he originally played in the first years of his career,” Hester said. “To be able to break the record that he set and to be able to share that moment being there with him standing there was an honor.”
From a phone call in college, to the record breaking day of Sept 18, 2014, the one that calls himself “Prime Time,” after the game put his hand onto the shoulder of “Anytime” that led to an embrace of mentee and idol. As the same crowd that cheered every Sanders return, now shouted Hester’s name.
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