My Sportsman: Devin Hester
In a bearish season, a star shines brightly in Chicago
Posted: Sunday November 25, 2007 8:28PM; Updated: Sunday November 25, 2007 8:30PM
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
One of the greatest obstacles facing the modern athlete is the heap of expectations he or she creates through performance. Mediocrity can be acceptable until you have flashed brilliance. Then there is no turning back.
For Devin Hester, my 2007 Sportsman of the Year, such expectations come daily following a brilliant rookie campaign in which he obliterated the NFL record for return touchdowns. He had six. No other player had ever notched more than four.
As 2007 set in, Hester added a seventh return score in the opening moments of Super Bowl XLI. Lesson learned, Indianapolis kicked away from him on five subsequent occasions. The Bears lost, but in doing so, they saw the light: They needed to get the ball to Hester even more -- preferably at wide receiver.
So began Hester's and the Bears' season of expectations. Of course, it started with a steady dose of cynicism. Hester wouldn't fit in at receiver right away, critics said. His gaudy return stats would sag, and the Bears wouldn't repeat their 13-3 record. Only one third of that has proved to be correct.
Opponents have wisely kicked away from Hester nearly 45 percent of the time this year, yet he is the lone upside of a dreary season in Chicago. He has five scores on returns, which put him on pace to pass Brian Mitchell's career return touchdown record (13) later this season. (It took Mitchell 14 seasons to set his mark). Hester has scored more often than any other Bears receiver or running back and accounted for 14 percent of the team's total points.
A lesser man might snap. Put yourself in Hester's shoes Oct. 14: You've already scored on a zig-zagging 89-yard punt return against the Vikings, but when the fourth quarter rolls around your team trails by seven. So you do what you do best, run like hell, right underneath Brian Griese's 81-yard bomb. You're in the middle of a chest bump when you notice Minnesota's Adrian Peterson has taken the subsequent kickoff 53 yards. The Bears lose 34-31. There was the Week 2 game against Kansas City, which you would have won single-handedly had the second of your two return scores not been called back for holding. There was the 97-yard fourth-quarter kick return against Detroit on Sept. 30 that would have been the game-winner, if only Chicago played defense. Most recently, there was Sunday's game against Denver, in which the second of your two touchdown returns was immediately offset by a 68-yard touchdown reception by Denver's Brandon Marshall. Groan. Had your team not won 37-34 in overtime, you might be tempted to alert quarterback Rex Grossman that your 232 return yards surpassed his passing yards by nearly 40.
I had the chance to ask Hester about these situations earlier this month. "This has to be driving you nuts, right?" I said. "Nuts," he said. "I only wish I could do more. It's so frustrating, and I feel like it's my fault, like I studied all week long for a huge exam and just got a C." The guy is the best player on his team and he feels like it's his fault. There's not a T.O. bone in his body.
There's a popular rumor in Chicago these days that has Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb -- allegedly one of the most sincere and focused guys in sports -- going to Chicago through free agency. If McNabb ever gets there, there's a certain Sportsman of the Year he'll be happy to work with.
Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.