Devin Hester announced his retirement from the NFL last fall, and on Monday, signed a ceremonial one-day contract to officially retire as a member of the Chicago Bears. This was not an easy decision for the 35-year-old, who had to fight back tears while talking about saying no to football Monday at Halas Hall — Hester said the Philadelphia Eagles reached out to him after Darren Sproles suffered a season-ending injury last September.
But Hester firmly remained retired, opting to spend more time with his family in Orlando. And with Hester officially out of the game, it raises this question: Does he retire as the last great return man in NFL history?
“He changed the game,” said former teammate Matt Forte, who also signed a ceremonial one-day contract to retire with the Bears on Monday. “I mean, literally, changed the game. If you can affect the game like that, he’s gotta be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The definition of a Hall of Famer is somebody who changed the game — like defenses and coaches had to carve out certain time to assess that particular guy. There’s not going to be another Devin Hester ever, I don’t believe.”
Hester himself was a special player, returning an NFL record 20 punts, kicks and missed field goals for touchdowns. Forte may be right in that there will never be another player like him, even if the NFL stays the way it is now.
But no player may ever get the opportunity to be the next Devin Hester as the sport continues to evaluate the serious issue of head trauma. Kickoffs, in particular, are among the most dangerous plays for player safety, and the sport has continued to work on finding ways to increase touchbacks and decrease returns since moving kickoffs from the 30 to 35-yard line prior to the 2011 season.
The Ivy League, for example, saw a significant decline in concussions on kickoffs when it moved the kicking spot from the 35 to 40-yard line. But increasing touchbacks is an imperfect solution, as many around the league have pointed out, as some players may run at half-speed thinking there will be a touchback while others are still going full speed in case there isn’t.
While the NFL hasn’t considered banning kickoffs yet, it’s entirely fair to wonder if they’ll still be part of the sport’s highest level in the next five years. And that doesn’t sit well with Hester.
“It’s one of the key aspects to this ballgame, man,” Hester said. “This is football. You gotta let these guys play football and that, at the end of the day, brings a lot of excitement to a lot of fans out there.
“… This is a position. It’s how a lot of kids make a living, and at the end of the day it’s football, man. They’re trying to find ways to eliminate injuries but the moment you step on the field, you’re bound to get hurt somewhere. You can’t avoid injuries. That’s just the nature of the beast. And I think taking that out of the game, it’s big. I (wouldn’t) like to see it happen.”
For everyone invested in the sport, it’s a difficult topic: On one hand, a kick return touchdown is one of the more exciting things that can happen in a game (and it certainly was the highlight of the Bears’ last Super Bowl appearance). On the other, concussions are a serious threat to the game, and the NFL continues to try to create and enforce rules that are designed to limit them.
So Hester may wind up being the last great kick returner in NFL history, maybe football history. That should — emphasis on should, not will — be enough to get him inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, right?
“Sometimes you gotta put guys in the Hall of Fame for being the most dangerous person on the field,” Hester said.
And he could be the last person to be, as a kick returner, the most dangerous person on the field.
“It’s a big part of football, it’s one of the most exciting plays when you’re playing this game of football,” Hester said. “At the end of the day, if I’m the last, if I’m the one to be the best at the return game, it’s an honor. But at the same time, I want to continue to see it play out.”