By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) He only does one thing well. That’s the story of Devin Hester’s career, isn’t it?
And the way we say that about a professional athlete. As though a man who has made it to the highest level of his trade but only does one thing well comes off the tongue as metallic and distasteful.
Odd that language and semantics might affect the future of a Chicago Bear not exactly known for being one the franchise’s more eloquent speakers.
He’s a specialist. In any other walk of life that word is complimentary. “Oh, Dr. Hester? Yes, he’s a neuro-oncologist. A brain specialist. He only does one thing well.”
We have seen Chicago Bear Devin Hester as a surgeon. Knifing through the opposition. The one thing he does well. But as an NFL special teams aficionado—cough, cough—a specialist, Hester and those of his ilk are almost considered second-class football citizens. Sideshows at the four-down tented big top.
Because it’s the kick returner’s fault he’s made to be the home run hitter, right? We demand nothing but bang from him or else he’s a bust. He may be a specialist, but he is only in such a position because he is the only one there who can do the job as well as he does. It isn’t as though just anyone on the team can stand back and catch a punt or kickoff as 11 guys approach him violently.
But handicap him for that, I guess.
And Hester is the greatest to ever field kicks. He knows that, and he feels he deserves consideration for football’s highest honor. “I have one foot in (the Hall of Fame) right now,” he told 670 The Score’s Mike Mulligan recently. “If I take three or four back this year, it should be considered 80 percent chance of making it. But I am not really worried about it right now. I am really focused on this season. After this season, when all the stats add up, hopefully it won’t be a question.”
But the league has begun to start considering the work of a kick returner so insignificant (or maybe lawsuit-worthy) that the position has been eliminated from the Pro Bowl along with kickoffs altogether.
“That was one of my goals for this season,” Hester said. “I won’t make the Pro Bowl. They can’t do that.”
There is also a good chance kickoffs in games that fans actually care about will become a thing of the past as well.
Dissolving the task of kick returning, while maybe not having a long-term negative effect on gameplay and likely becoming something we viewers all get used to pretty quickly, compromises Hester’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Voters might have a hard time respecting a guy who played a position that no longer exists.
Some already don’t because of that “one thing done well” stigma. “If we recognize a player solely based on his specialty, then where do we draw the line? The best long-snapper of all time? The best coverage linebacker? The best short-yardage blocker?” Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer said in 2011. “I would not elect Hester based exclusively on his returns record. He’s a spectacular touchdown-maker in that role, but I just think a Hall of Famer needs to be a complete football player.”
But what’s a “complete football player?” Almost nobody plays both ways. Don’t offensive linemen do just one thing well if we’re not splitting hairs? You are more than welcome to walk up to one of them and explain to them that in fairness and respect of consistency of “complete football players,” they don’t belong in Canton.
Certainly kickers are not complete players, so Grossi presumably would be in favor of shutting out Ray Guy, the greatest punter ever, from the Hall and removing Jan Stenerud, the only pure kicker enshrined in Canton, Ohio. But football without punting and field goals is a game of Madden played by a super-stoned giggling kid on a couch. But the fantastic footmen have to sit at the kids’ table along with Hester.
And nobody considers micro-positions like coverage linebacker in Hall of Fame candidacy as those like Grossi are inclined to bring up when trying to keep specialists out—though if we are going to do so, Hester is both a fabulous career kick returner and punt returner, two very different tasks. Or more than one thing done well.
Respective Halls of Fame are almost entirely stats-driven places for player enshrinement. How many tackles, touchdowns, home runs, goals, points, etc. did you accumulate? A long snapper doesn’t accumulate stats, so mentioning that position is irrelevant (though Patrick Mannelly is in the Hall of Fame of my heart).
Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News theorized, “If you’re a specialist you have to put numbers that are out of the ballpark. Hasn’t Hester, though?” Most return touchdowns in a career that likely still has some years left to come and most punt return touchdowns—all that despite playing on a team during his career has had a defense that didn’t let up many touchdowns and, thus, subsequent kickoffs. Usually guys that have the most of some positive stat get to accompany the other elites in the game.
But many are uncomfortable calling specialists the game’s elite. We tend to be so comfortable in the language we’ve been long used to. It’s always been that way, not letting in the specialists, so we shouldn’t change that.
“He’s only good at one thing.” Even though that’s exactly what he’s asked to do.
“He’s just a specialist.”
And being special in professional sports for some reason just isn’t so great to some so used to special language.