Devin Hester (69)
Last year's most unexpectedly electric rookie was a special teams speedster who seemingly scored at will. So how to take advantage of his touchdown touch? Give him the damn ball! (At wideout, of course)
Posted: Tuesday August 28, 2007 3:36PM; Updated: Tuesday August 28, 2007 3:36PM
Most average joes would 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 is feeling suffocated by celebrity. He's having a hard time coping with the autograph seekers who interrupt his dinners and intrude upon his nights on the town. A typical approach begins with the fan spotting Hester from afar, deducing from the 24-year-old's beefy forearms, broad shoulders, barrel chest and bejeweled earlobes that this is indeed the league's newest gamebreaker, and then bravely sidling over for a little small talk. "They'll say something like, 'Nice run' or 'I was at the game where you did such and such,' and I'll just 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 so overwhelms him that at times he says he's actually scared to sign -- but the fear is 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 ahead and take care of your meal,'?" he says, cheerily noting one of the benefits of sudden fame.
This, in essence, is Devin Hester: a walking, talking contradiction, a player both low-key and flashy, humble and cocky. Those conflicting personality traits might make him tough to pin down in a conversation, but they suit a man who shreds defenses by feigning one thing while doing another. The elusive Hester returned an NFL-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: a 92-yarder on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI.
So electric was Hester 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 wide receiver, on the logic that his talents will make the NFL's No. 2 scoring team of '06 even more potent. Since most opponents undoubtedly will kick away from Hester this year, why not find other ways to deploy Chicago's most dynamic weapon?
Though on the small side at 5' 11" and 186 pounds, Hester combines the underpinnings of a productive wideout -- strong hands and quick feet -- with preternatural speed and an instinct for making people miss. YouTube is a living shrine to his ankle-breaking runbacks: Highlights from his NFL rookie season and his three college years at Miami show him slicing through wedges, spinning away from defenders and wending around the field as if operated by joystick. When EA Sports rated Hester's speed at 100 in Madden NFL 08 , many in the blogosphere saw the grade as a slap at such fabled fast men as Deion Sanders and Charles Woodson, neither of whom ever scored that high.
But Hester's loftiest marks come from Bears teammates. "He's going to create so many mismatches, speed and quicknesswise," says quarterback Rex Grossman. Adds coach Lovie Smith, "I can't think of an athlete who's been able to be a great returner and play corner, receiver and possibly running back. Reggie Bush does a lot of things on the offensive side -- but he couldn't play cornerback."
The precision and speed with which Hester already runs routes has come as a surprise to many. He was so fast through most patterns at his first practices with the offense that he 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 need much polish. "Having the ability to stay disciplined and do exactly what he needs to do on every single play is going to be his biggest adjustment," Muhammad says.