All that ever had to be done with Devin Hester — the entire puzzle of his sparkling and entirely unique career — was figure out how exactly to put the ball in his hands so he could go somewhere with it, fast.
This was the challenge presented to his coaches at every level of the game, from high school through the University of Miami and on through a decade in the NFL, in which he never really had a position other than the best return man of all time. He was cut by the Ravens Tuesday, marking the likely end for a player the likes of whom we may never see again, as the game evolves away from one of his signature skills.
We’ll put aside for now the inevitable Hall of Fame debate regarding a transcendent specialist, and the attendant consideration of Brian Mitchell, Mel Gray, Eric Metcalf and others, instead just recognizing what made Hester and his 20 total return touchdowns something more than the others.
Those who only saw the highlights were missing much of what made the Hester experience so entertaining, so intermittently maddening and satisfying, like some kind of football wheel of fortune. The fact that he struggled so mightily to actually find a place on the field, and even often made the return game alone a cavalcade of risk, made his utter unpredictability something to watch.
He was never a cornerback, too often drifting out of sorts. He’d be in man when everybody else was in zone or exactly the opposite, just not comfortable reacting to stay with an opposing receiver when everything about him was programmed instead to get away from people. He was also not a running back, preferring more open field than picking his way behind and around the fat guys.
The Bears defaulted to paying him as a top wide receiver as a way of justifying what his services cost, and that meant burning timeouts to get him lined up properly or having a teammate literally push him into the proper pre-snap split. Positional precision was not his thing.
Neither was decision-making on returns, and that’s what made all the touchdowns feel so redemptive. The issues that led to the Ravens letting Hester go were actually nothing new to anyone who watched him his whole career, as we were used to a frequent lack of consistent judgment regarding which kicks and punts to take back and when. It was all worth it for one of those 20, however, knowing that the question shouted at the TV of “What are you doing, Devin?!” could soon be answered by an impossible 90-degree cut and six points 70 yards later.
Someday we will tell our grandchildren what a kickoff was, other than just an old-timey term for the start of something. We’ll explain that a team used to literally kick the ball down the field to the other team to begin the game and after scores, and it could be taken all the way back like it was to start Super Bowl XLI. That was before all the head injury concerns and rule changes legislated it out, though. And we’ll show them videos of the five times Hester scored on those all by himself in the NFL.
That he really wasn’t good at anything else this entire time is what defines him as a football unicorn, a magical being that you hoped could appear at any time. He wasn’t even a reliable or responsible return man, despite being the best ever, and it is nearly impossible to find a proper single comparison to someone so completely mercurial. For better or worse, he was almost always not where he was supposed to be.
A Bears radio play-by-play man summed it all up when, in a moment of in-game reverie, he reacted by speaking in the second person, so astonished that he simply said “Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!”
It was exactly that real meaning that defined the experience, a blissful theater of the absurd.