Appreciating an all-time great: Devin Hester

By Mubarak Salami

You never realize what you have until it’s gone, a cliché that I’m sure you’ve heard before.

However, this idea never became relevant for me in the world of sports until this past week.

On Thursday night, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver and return specialist Devin Hester returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in Atlanta’s 56-14 victory over the Buccaneers. It was Hester’s 20th career return touchdown, the most in NFL history.

For the past eight years, Hester terrorized NFL special teams units with his world-class speed and innate ability to make a big play. He has single-handedly revolutionized the return aspect of the game and is one of the primary reasons teams now select players solely to play on special teams.

Hester is arguably the greatest special teams player of all-time. He holds every significant return record and has shown the league how big an impact a player can have on a game without even touching the ball.

Hester is a living legend.

Drafted by the Bears in 2006, Hester’s impact on the team was immediate. Whether it was returning a punt for a touchdown in his first career game against the rival Packers or returning the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI for a touchdown as a rookie, Hester brought excitement to a facet of the game that was often overlooked. My favorite Devin Hester moment happened in his rookie year.

It was Week 6 of the season, and the Bears were playing the Cardinals on Monday Night Football, one of the biggest stages in sports. They were undefeated coming into the game and were expected to make short work of the struggling Cardinals. This was hardly the case.

The first half of the game was a debacle for the Bears; they turned the ball over several times and trailed Arizona 20-0 at halftime.

The second half was a different story. Chicago’s defense took over. After two defensive touchdowns and a field goal, the Bears trailed 23-17 late in the fourth quarter. Since the offense had been inept during the entire game, the Bears desperately needed another way to put points on the board.

Enter Hester.

He returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown to put the Bears up 24-23, ultimately proving to be the game-winning score. Moments like those are why I will never forget Hester and what he meant to the entire Bears organization and its fans.

Moments like these are why I will always remember holding my breath as he got ready to field a punt or kickoff. I will always remember him turning to the crowd and waving his hands in the air to pump up the fans that adored him so much. These are a few of the many memories that I will always have.

When Hester returned a punt for touchdown to break Deion Sanders’ record it was an incredibly bittersweet moment for me and all Bears fans, I’m sure.

I was happy for the man who lifted my spirits so many times, happy that he had statistically established himself as the best ever. On the other hand, I was sad. Sad because I know how special it would have been if he had done it in the navy and orange that had become a part of his identity.

Or perhaps it is because I have seen how incompetent the Bears’ return game has become without him.

Either way, I am thankful for the moments he gave me.

I wish there were a way to get him a gift, to thank him for all the great memories.

However, I have an inkling that he would probably just return it, anyway.

Mubarak is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at msalami2@dailyillini.com. Follow him on Twitter @justmubar.