By Tim Baffoe–
(670 The Score) Devin Hester was the personification of what attracts most of us to sports.
He officially retired this week, and the discussion of him turns to his Hall of Fame credentials, as is the lot of any player who was good enough to have his name remembered after his sport is finished with him. For Hester’s entire career, most of which was spent with the Chicago Bears returning kickoffs and punts, he was an oddity doing something normal in such an abnormally successful way that he become appointment viewing on his own.
The most special of athletes seem to have a knack for tweaking the space-time continuum. Time stopped for Barry Bonds at-bats, the path to his waving bat like a vortex. Everything melts away while Patrick Kane is toying with a puck in a shootout. Golf demands silence, but the heyday of Tiger Woods involved vacuums of quiet anticipation broken by a medieval sword cutting a pendulum path of singular metallic siren.
After Hester announced he was done, I was watching some Hester highlights — something I highly recommend one do periodically, as it has been proved to add years to one’s life — and I found myself not breathing. From watching something on tape, from years ago.
It’s not a suffocation, though. Oxygen isn’t needed while watching a Hester kick return. Maybe because even on YouTube, we just assume he’s using all of it. When time stops, one needs not breathe.
Hester taking back a punt or kick return should be narrated by David Attenborough. His experiences carrying a football were phenomenon worthy more of a nature documentary than NFL Films.
The scenes were all perfect. Hester standing on his own island miles away from the other players. Pan the 11 predators of different spots and stripes. Wet clouds huffing from their muzzles in hungry but unsure anticipation. The steel drums of Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” tinging hypnotically. The prey loosely bobbing back and forth, supremely confident and quiet, as any prey who gets his own theme music should be. Awaiting an ignition point to streak across a chewed up, half-frozen Soldier Field. The kick booms into the air, rotating for years. The drums stop.
So does your heart.
Then an explosion of drums or hearts. A scramble of predators. The loose bobbing turns to precision, nano-second calculations of angles and entryways. Surgical cuts, stops, starts. The almost fatal move. The near disaster. The acceleration. The denouement.
It tightened your chest. To the quarterbacks go the glory, and rightly so. The marquee wide receivers get diva status in the operatic sense. A linebacker that can crush another human struts Machiavellian.
None of them paralyze your respiratory system while you watch them, though. Watching Hester made you forget to breathe.
You can rattle off whatever stats of his or anyone else’s that you want. But name me players in any sport that cause a viewer organ failure for a prolonged career. Those are the immortals as sure as any metric.
Hester’s function, beyond the pejorative “specialist” that some might use as a poor case against him, was the most decidedly solo as a game with 10 other players out there can be. Quarterbacks, receivers and rushers for the most part are reliant on some transaction with a teammate. Even a kicker needs a good snapper and holder.
When a kick or punter returner is on the job, he’s the only person to put his hands on the ball. His teammates carve paths, but he chooses which to take. He dodges 11 large, fast men homing in solely on him.
The work is difficult and therefore over in a second or two most of the time, if it even gets started at all. Kick return rules were changed because of Hester, helping ensure there won’t be another like him. Punt returns are rife with fair catches and kickers angling the trajectory out of bounds, something they unwisely didn’t do enough when Hester played.
One return touchdown is a career, an experience so unique that even calling it a “home run” doesn’t come close to being comparable. Hester made an anomaly into art. It became such that what was otherwise rare for the rest of the league became for Hester not “if” but “when.” Hence being named to the NFL all-decade team for the 2000s when his career didn’t start until 2006. And being a humble, friendly guy all the while to boot.
Hester single-handedly turned special teams from a complement to the offense into actual offense itself. Head coaches, not just coordinators, had to game plan for a third phase. Hester caused opponents, the league and the game to literally change in order to contain him.
Hell, our bathroom breaks had to be cut shorter so that we wouldn’t miss an opportunity to stop breathing. Nobody in his era brought us more singularly concentrated phosphorescent explosions of sports amazement.
For what else do we build Halls of Fame?
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for 670TheScore.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.