Last year's mostunexpectedly electric rookie was a special teams speedster who seemingly scoredat will. So how to take advantage of his touchdown touch? Give him the damnball! (At wideout, of course)
Most average joeswould gladly trade places with Devin Hester, and he might be open to the idea.After one remarkable NFL season the Chicago Bears' Pro Bowl kick returner isfeeling suffocated by celebrity. He's having a hard time coping with theautograph seekers who interrupt his dinners and intrude upon his nights on thetown. A typical approach begins with the fan spotting Hester from afar,deducing from the 24-year-old's beefy forearms, broad shoulders, barrel chestand bejeweled earlobes that this is indeed the league's newest gamebreaker, andthen bravely sidling over for a little small talk. "They'll say somethinglike, 'Nice run' or 'I was at the game where you did such and such,' and I'lljust put my head down and say, 'Thanks,' " says the soft-spoken Hester."You really don't want to talk loud because once one person overhears you,that's when the crowd comes."
The attention sooverwhelms him that at times he says he's actually scared to sign--but the fearis nothing that a little VIP treatment won't allay. "I might go out to eat,and the waitress might say, 'My boss said that if you sign this, we'll go aheadand take care of your meal,' " he says, cheerily noting one of the benefitsof sudden fame.
This, in essence,is Devin Hester: a walking, talking contradiction, a player both low-key andflashy, humble and cocky. Those conflicting personality traits might make himtough to pin down in a conversation, but they suit a man who shreds defenses byfeigning one thing while doing another. The elusive Hester returned anNFL-record six regular-season kicks for touchdowns as a rookie--three punts,two kickoffs and a missed field goal--then made number 7 his most memorable: a92-yarder on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI.
So electric wasHester with the ball in his hands that the Bears are moving him from cornerback(where he played sparingly in Chicago's dime package last year) to widereceiver, on the logic that his talents will make the NFL's No. 2 scoring teamof '06 even more potent. Since most opponents undoubtedly will kick away fromHester this year, why not find other ways to deploy Chicago's most dynamicweapon?
Though on thesmall side at 5' 11" and 186 pounds, Hester combines the underpinnings of aproductive wideout--strong hands and quick feet--with preternatural speed andan instinct for making people miss. YouTube is a living shrine to hisankle-breaking runbacks: Highlights from his NFL rookie season and his threecollege years at Miami show him slicing through wedges, spinning away fromdefenders and wending around the field as if operated by joystick. When EASports rated Hester's speed at 100 in Madden NFL 08, many in the blogospheresaw the grade as a slap at such fabled fast men as Deion Sanders and CharlesWoodson, neither of whom ever scored that high.
But Hester'sloftiest marks come from Bears teammates. "He's going to create so manymismatches, speed and quicknesswise," says quarterback Rex Grossman. Addscoach Lovie Smith, "I can't think of an athlete who's been able to be agreat returner and play corner, receiver and possibly running back. Reggie Bushdoes a lot of things on the offensive side--but he couldn't playcornerback."
The precision andspeed with which Hester already runs routes has come as a surprise to many. Hewas so fast through most patterns at his first practices with the offense thathe often had to slow down coming out of his breaks to time up with throws.While not yet as fluid a route runner as, say, teammate Muhsin Muhammad--who,in fairness, has spent 11 pro seasons perfecting the craft--Hester won't needmuch polish. "Having the ability to stay disciplined and do exactly what heneeds to do on every single play is going to be his biggest adjustment,"Muhammad says.
Rather than forcehim to learn the entire offensive playbook, the Bears are spoon-feeding him apackage of 15 to 20 situational plays. The plan is to use him as a receiver outof the backfield and occasionally split him wide in two-tight-end,two-running-back sets. "You can let your mind go a lot of differentways," Smith says. "It's safe to say he won't play any tight end, hewon't play much fullback, and he won't play quarterback."
Last year Hesteroften made the exciting look routine, with touchdowns that could come at anytime: early (the Super Bowl); late (fourth-quarter returns in Week 1 atGreen¬†Bay and Week¬†6 at Arizona); even in both halves of the samegame (Week¬†14 at St. Louis). He pulled off his most unusual return inWeek¬†10 against the New York Giants. Pinned eight yards deep in his endzone, Hester fielded a 52-yard missed field goal, took two casual steps as ifto concede a touchback--then followed a Bears convoy down the right sidelineand past the stunned Giants field goal unit for an NFL-record-tying 108-yardtouchdown. Hester's knack for changing the tempo of a game in a single bursthas elicited comparisons with another nearly unstoppable Bear, Gale Sayers."Obviously," says Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner, "when[Hester] did what he did, we were all looking at it like, How can we get theball in his hands more?"
Initially, Hesterwas loath to offer suggestions. Coming out of Miami, he was written off by someNFL teams as too versatile for his own good. He played different sides of theball during each of his three seasons--an experience he likens to"switching majors every year." Initially he thrived at receiver (he hada 58-yard reception in his first game), but when an ankle injury andpersonality differences with his position coach stalled his progress, he movedto defensive back and moonlighted as a running back. "I've seen a lot ofguys come through here," says Andreu Swasey, Miami's strength andconditioning coach, "but I don't think I've ever been around a guy thistalented. You can't not find a position for him."
Once in the pros,Hester, drafted 57th overall by Chicago, envisioned becoming a shutdown cornerin the mold of Sanders, his boyhood idol. The Bears were convinced he'dultimately make a better receiver, but rather than burden him with theconversion as a rookie they chose to let him settle in on defense and wet hisfeet as a returner. Despite the team's confidence in his potential, Hesterwasn't immediately sold on the move to offense. It took 13¬†months ofwooing by Smith, Turner and other coaches for Hester to finally flip. Smith'spayoff pitch, meant as a playful jab at Hester's forthcoming ad campaign forCampbell's Soup, got straight to the point: "I told him they don't pay himto backpedal."
Maybe so, butretreating from a defensive mentality has proved difficult. Hester will sayhe's eager to start catching passes and will give 10 reasons why that's goodfor the team, but the longer he talks about the move, the more he backpedals.And before you know it, he's changing positions all over again.
"Touchdownsare for players who--how can I say this?--who like to be seen," saysHester, whose own end zone dances channel Prime Time's self-aggrandizement."The defensive player is that guy who doesn't get a lot of recognition, butat the end of the day he gets a lot of praise under the table. There's afeeling you get when you know you're shutting down somebody. It's not likeanybody can do that. That's the thing about cornerbacks--they're the people whowant challenges."
More than a fewexperts around the NFL scratched their heads when the Bears, at Smith'sinsistence, burned a second-round pick on Hester, whose alternate stints atreturner, cornerback, receiver and tailback on middling Hurricanes teams wereinterpreted by pro scouts as a failure to find traction at any one spot. TheRams, Cardinals and Titans considered taking him but passed. This year,Dolphins G.M. Randy Mueller was determined not to make the same mistake. When aHester facsimile surfaced in the 2007 draft in Ohio State wideout TedGinn¬†Jr., Mueller snapped him up with the ninth pick, bypassing highlytouted quarterback Brady Quinn. "I've always been a believer that speedmakes a difference," says Mueller. "Devin proved last year that anytime a guy gets a ball--whether he's an offensive player, a defensive player ora return guy--he can change the game."
It's the kind ofpraise any other player would welcome. Revel in, even. Hester recoils from it."Sometimes I try to make myself feel like I don't even play football,"he says, just seriously enough to make it seem like the truth. But beforetaking that as gospel, remember: This guy's the master at faking peopleout.
DUAL THREATS See a photo gallery of Hester's rolemodels--the best players ever to excel on both offense and defense. ONLY ATSI.COM
Smith on Hester: "I can't think of an athletewho's been able to be a great returner and play corner, receiver and possiblyrunning back. Reggie Bush does a lot of things--but he couldn't playcornerback."
Photograph by Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Hester's preternatural bursts, shifts and changes of direction, as if he'scontrolled by joystick, have made him the scourge of kick- coverage teams--anda YouTube and Madden idol.
Hester's impact on special teams altered draft philosophy around theleague--and explained the Dolphins' decision to make Ginn, a virtual clone ofHester, the No. 9 pick.
BEST NFL MATCHUPS