Devin Hester

Welcome home: Devin Hester, Matt Forte will retire as Bears

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AP

Welcome home: Devin Hester, Matt Forte will retire as Bears

There’s no place like home. 

On Wednesday, the Bears announced that former players Devin Hester and Matt Forte will sign one-day contracts with the team on April 23 to retire as members of the Bears organization. 

Both Hester and Forte spent their first eight seasons playing football for Chicago, and their legacy will now be retired in orange and navy.

Hester, a Bear from 2006-13, starting setting records his rookie season by recording five touchdown returns and earning Pro Bowl honors while helping the Bears reach Super Bowl XLI, all in his first year.

In one of his most memorable plays as a Bear, Hester ran back a 92-yard kick return touchdown to start Super Bowl XLI not even 20 seconds into the matchup vs. the Indianapolis Colts.

One more time for old time’s sake:

In his overall career with the Bears, Hester set franchise records for punt returns (264), punt return touchdowns (13), punt return touchdowns in a season (4), kickoff returns (222), kickoff return yards (5,504) and kickoff return touchdowns in a single game (2). Over his 11-year career, he’s totaled 20 return touchdowns total — the most in NFL history.
 
Forte, known as one of the best dual-threat backs in Bears history, also had a breakout rookie season to kickoff his time with the Bears. He recorded 63 receptions, 1,238 total rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns.

The two-time Pro Bowler also set a single-season record by notching 102 receptions in 2014. This allowed him to be only one of three running backs in NFL history to record 100+ receptions in a single season. 

Collectively with the Bears, Forte ran for 8,602 yards and 45 touchdowns while also adding racking up 4,116 receiving yards and receiving 19 touchdowns. 

His 2,035 rushing attempts and 8,602 rushing yards each rank second all-time by running back in Bears history and 11th overall in the NFL. 

Welcome home, Devin and Matt. It's good to have you back. 

What was it like to coach against Devin Hester? 'You hold your breath'

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AP

What was it like to coach against Devin Hester? 'You hold your breath'

Jeff Rodgers had to gameplan for Devin Hester twice in his career as a special teams coordinator under John Fox: First, in 2010 with the Carolina Panthers, and second, in 2011 with the Denver Broncos. 

“You're holding your breath,” Rodgers, who’s in his third year as the Bears’ special teams coordinator, said. “There's been nobody like him in my generation.”

Neither of those games were necessarily the most memorable performances by Hester, who set an NFL record with 19 special teams touchdowns (14 on punt returns, five on kickoff returns). But the fact that Rodgers — like every other special teams coordinator from 2006-2016 — had to gameplan for Hester was notable in and of itself. 

“He was really the first guy that you really game-planned for and you saw different people take different approaches,” Rodgers said. “You see people try to punt the ball out of bounds. Well, defenses can combat that with some of the rush scheme so you may have to change that. Saw people try to kick fair catch balls and short because the reality is, if you played Chicago when he was rolling and you came out of the game with a 35 or 36 punt, which isn't great, but against him, you're usually taking that every time. He's as good as it gets.”

In that first meeting, on Oct. 10, 2010 in Charlotte, Rodgers’ strategy was to punt out of bounds or away from Hester to prevent him from fielding anything. 

At first, it didn’t work: Hester ripped off a 50-yard return on the first punt he fielded.

“We tried to punt the ball out of bounds and our punter put the ball about four inches from the sideline,” Rodgers said. “He reached in and got it and shot straight up the sideline.” 

From there, punter Jason Baker largely succeeded in kicking away from Hester, with his next six punts not being fielded or being fair caught. But the downside to that strategy was the Bears frequently received good starting field position — though having drives begin between the 40s was preferable to Hester ripping off a big return to set up a drive beginning in the Panthers’ red zone. 

A year later, Rodgers again had to figure out how to mute Hester’s success with the Denver Broncos. He was more successful in this Dec. 11, 2011 meeting, with Hester returning one kickoff for 25 yards and gaining 36 yards on two punt returns. Hester fair caught four punts, and one went out of bounds.

But Hester still notched returns of 26 and 10 yards despite Denver’s strategy to kick the ball as high as possible. 

“In Denver, we tried to hang it up there,” Rodgers said. “Did a good job on the first couple. Actually the best ball that our punter hit that day, that was the 2011 game, the best ball our punter hit that day with hang time and distance, he kind of circled around, went backwards, sideline, all of a sudden he turned a corner and you're holding your breath. We were able to get him on the ground, but he's a game-changer.”

The game-changing success Hester found as a return specialist should get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday, unless the rather strange stinginess on special teamers in Canton continues. But there’s no doubt in Rodgers’ mind when it comes to how great Hester was — and how maddening it was to scheme against him. 

“I'd say (he) changed the game on both kickoffs and punts,” Rodgers said. “He's the best that's ever done it.”

Devin Hester leaves more than Bears, NFL records behind

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AP

Devin Hester leaves more than Bears, NFL records behind

This isn’t about Devin Hester and the Hall of Fame (can we say, “gimme?” As longtime pigskin scribe Ira Miller once said of that standard, “If they wrote the history of pro football, would they have to mention you by name?” Hester, yes, obviously). It’s about the guy, one of the quiet gentle spirits you feel fortunate to have had come through your work life.

Like so many things, when you think of Devin Hester, you get a collection of snapshots, really fun ones in this case. Well, mostly fun; sometimes “fun” doesn’t totally apply when you’re thinking about the end of something that made your Bears Sundays, well, fun.

Snapshots like…

…knowing you didn’t leave the TV when punting situations came for opponents, or didn’t take too long getting back to your seat when Devin was going to return a kickoff. Those were plays when fans sometimes dawdled in the kitchen. Before Devin…

…the touchdown return to start the 2006 Super Bowl, one of those moments with an almost cartoon quality, the roadrunner moving like someone had hit the fast-forward button for one guy and left the other 21 on the field looking like they were running in peanut butter…

…talking to Devin about whether he could put into words a kind of genius that nobody else had. What did he see, what was he thinking as he made one of those returns that simply defied human physics. He thought for a second, then just sort of laughed and said simply, “I see colors. I run away from the ones that aren’t mine.” Simple, right?...

…the Bears announcing that GM Jerry Angelo had used a second-round pick in the 2006 draft on a cornerback out of Miami. Only Hester wasn’t really a cornerback, wasn’t really anything just because he could do so many things well – returner, DB, receiver, running back – that his coaches moved him around. So what did the Bears really get? That, no one could have remotely predicted…

…the emotion that included tears when Devin learned that the Bears had gotten rid of Lovie Smith, the only coach Hester had played for. When you think pro football as being just a business, guess again. Devin had to be talked out of quitting the game that day, and it really was never quite the same for him after that, in Atlanta, Baltimore or Seattle…

…how Devin took the shredding for his shortcomings as a receiver and heard how Smith and the coaches were blasted for making him into something he wasn’t. That wasn’t the whole story, of course; the Bears wanted the football in his hands more, Devin and his agent wanted to lift the money ceiling that came with being “just a returner,” so Angelo worked out a very fair deal that was back-loaded with escalators to pay Devin $10 million over each of the last two years of the contract if he hit certain performance triggers. He didn’t, but trashing the kid for wanting to grab for the brass ring never made sense…

…the fun factor. Devin would go back to receive a kickoff and every fan in the end zone seats of Soldier Field was standing. And Devin was having a ball with it, to the point where you absolutely knew that if Devin Hester decided to run instead into Lake Michigan, all he’d have to do would be wave his arm for all the kids to join him and they’d have followed the Pied Piper about anywhere he wanted to go…

that would include Canton.