Many people point to Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return touchdown to open Super Bowl XLI as his signature NFL moment.
It’s the only time in Super Bowl history that a player has returned an opening kickoff back for a touchdown.
However, when thinking about Hester’s prolific abilities as a return man, another memory comes to my mind because I had the chance to see him in person the following season.
As the afternoon turned to evening, the temperatures plummeted on Sunday, November 25, 2007, at Soldier Field.
The Chicago Bears trailed the Denver Broncos, 34-20, with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Both teams desperately needed a win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
A wintry mix of snow and slush that only Midwesterners can truly understand began coming down.
With our backs to Lake Michigan, the temperature of about 32 degrees felt colder with the precipitation and off-and-on windy conditions.
My mom and I wore several layers of clothing, gloves, hats, coats and blankets.
Mom was nice enough to get us each cups of hot chocolate, which was more for survival than anything.
It was cold.
Plus, we had already endured plenty of football and sub-freezing temperatures the night before the Bears-Broncos game: My older brother and his Naperville North High School teammates won the 2007 Class 8A state football championship at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
With the Bears trailing by 14 points and time dwindling, Mom asked the dreaded question no teenager wants to hear: Did I want to leave early to beat the traffic and avoid watching what was almost certainly going to end in a Bears’ loss?
“Let’s see if if Devin Hester can run one more touchdown back,” I told her.
To that point in the game, Hester had two return touchdowns in the second half to wake up a Bears team trailing 13-6 at halftime.
Hester scored on a 75-yard punt return and an 88-yard kickoff return.
With a little bit more than seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, Bears fans roared when Hester took the field.
Soldier Field was in a pandemonium when the “Windy City Flyer” — a nickname Bears radio announcer Jeff Joniak gave to Hester — danced to the rapper Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” in preparation for his return.
It was a feeling I’d never felt before or since while watching a football game.
The Michael Jordan era was a bit before my time, but I’ve watched Bulls guard Derrick Rose at the peak of his powers and I’ve seen Sammy Sosa fire up Cubs fans at Wrigley Field; Hester was the most electrifying Chicago athlete I’ve ever watched.
The Bears ended up winning a wild game by a final score of 37-34 in overtime.
It wouldn’t have been possible without Hester’s heroics.
The 2007 Bears finished the year with a 7-9 record, well short of expectations for a team that had made the Super Bowl the season before.
But for one more Sunday, the Bears held onto their playoff aspirations.
It was one of the best weekends of my life.
𝐍𝐨𝐯𝐞𝐦𝐛𝐞𝐫 𝟐𝟓, 𝟐𝟎𝟎𝟕 | 🐐
Devin Hester returns both a kickoff and punt for a TD to beat Jay Cutler & the Broncos in OT!
𝗖𝘂𝘁𝗹𝗲𝗿: 302 Yds, 2 TD
𝗚𝗿𝗼𝘀𝘀𝗺𝗮𝗻: 193 Yds, TD pic.twitter.com/inQ6RJLZmM
— This Day in Chicago Sports (@ChiSportsDay) November 25, 2020
Hester Selected As A Finalist For Pro Football Hall Of Fame
On Thursday, Hester was selected among 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2022.
While only five modern-day players can be elected for enshrinement in August 2022, Hester should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer as the NFL’s greatest return man ever.
Hester finished his career with 20 total return touchdowns — 14 punts, five kickoffs and a missed field-goal attempt — which ranks first in league history.
Also, Hester is a three-time All-Pro (2006, 2007 and 2010), a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2010s and a member of the NFL 100 All-Time Team.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) December 30, 2021
There are many other players with more impressive receiving numbers than Hester, but opposing teams simply could not kick or punt the ball to him.
Hester changed the game as a return man, consistently flipping the field in the Bears’ favor or finding himself in the end zone.
Hester had many signature moments, endearing himself early with Bears fans by scoring on an 84-yard punt return touchdown in his first pro game against the Green Bay Packers.
There was the also Hester’s punt return touchdown in Week 6 of the 2006 season against the Arizona Cardinals, which prompted the late Dennis Green’s legendary “the Bears are who we thought they were” postgame rant.
Also, there was Hester’s “kick 6” in Week 10 of the 2006 season against the New York Giants, where he tied the NFL record at the time for a 108-yard touchdown return of kicker Jay Feely‘s missed field-goal attempt.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) July 12, 2019
As a rookie in 2006, Hester set the NFL single-season record with five return touchdowns.
In 2007, Hester eclipsed his own record with six return touchdowns.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee will reduce the list of 15 finalists to 10 and then to five.
Each of the five players will be voted on, with a 80 percent “yes” vote required for enshrinement.
The Hall of Fame class of 2022 will be revealed on February 10, three days before Super Bowl LVI.
The case to include Hester in the 2022 class is simple.
When you think of the NFL’s best returner, who is the player you think of?
Greatest returner ever? Wishing @D_Hest23 a happy 38th birthday.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) November 4, 2020
The answer is Devin Hester.