Devin Hester is back, way back, standing near the end zone for the Bears on special teams, waiting for a kick he hopes to return to midfield or beyond, if not all the way. It's where he succeeded most as a rookie back in 2006, when he took the NFL by storm, and a spot he feels comfortable filling once again.
And, best of all, having Hester deep for punts and kickoffs against the Vikings was a move that worked, with the two-time All-Pro taking a third-quarter Ryan Longwell kick from two yards behind his own goal line to the Minnesota 34, a return of 68 yards. The play seemed to ignite his teammates, the Soldier Field faithful and, most importantly, the artist formerly known as the "Windy City Flyer" himself.
"It was great getting out there to do some of those long runbacks again," Hester said in the locker room after a 27-13 win over the NFC North-rival Vikings in Week 10. "I felt that I gave the offense a little spark with that resulting field position. It was fun, and the results were good."
Good enough in fact to set up a Robbie Gould 37-yard field goal seven plays later that gave the Bears a 20-13 advantage over the Vikings at the time.
"I felt comfortable on special teams," said Hester. "I always have. It's a position I know pretty well and a position I enjoy playing. There's nothing more exciting than standing there, waiting for the ball to arrive, then getting the chance to do something good with the play. Our offense and defense contribute so much. When special teams has time on the field, we feel that we need to make a statement as well."
Sunday's game against the Vikings had Hester taking as few snaps on the offensive side of the ball as he has seen in a while during the extended experiment that has had him lining up at wide receiver since 2007.
Hester saw the change as a positive move that would help his overall development as a player.
"When I first came into the league, I did a lot of returns," he said. "That was fun and exciting, but when it was suggested that I could also work at receiver, that was appealing as well. I really felt that I knew the return position, and it was time to learn something new. Receiver fit right into that plan. Now my skills have increased. I know I can do the returns, but if and when they need me in the regular offensive unit, I'm ready for that as well. The more I can be on the field and the more versatile I can become, the better it is for the team as a whole."
Chicago's win over the Vikings demonstrated a marked improvement over the team's earlier struggles, when no unit except the defense seemed to produce consistently or effectively. Hester felt that the bye two Sundays ago and a renewed dedication by all players to finish the season with a playoff berth had a tangible effect.
"The communication within the team is better all around now," Hester stated. "When a unit is not on the field, we watch what our guys are doing out there. Then each unit gets in, offense, defense, special teams, whatever, our goal is to further the progress that has already been made. If the defense gave us good field position, the offense is going to try to get the score. If there's a kickoff, you know that special teams in general, and myself in particular, are going to try to get that return just as far down the field as we possibly can."
When asked about opposing teams' tendency to kick away from him, Hester seemed philosophical.
"That's going to happen, and in a way that is a positive," he said. "It means they have game-planned around you. They know you can be dangerous."
Offensively, Hester recorded two of the 10 longest plays of the day for Chicago, with a catch-and-run for a touchdown early on in the second quarter and then an 11-yard reception later in the same period.
"I think we were able to mix it up some out there today and confuse the Minnesota defense somewhat," he said. "That certainly played to my benefit."
Hester was second on the team with four receptions for 38 yards from quarterback Jay Cutler. He also had two punt returns for 47 yards, and his two kickoff returns totaled 100 yards.
"It was good to scatter the ball around there a little bit," he said. "I contributed wherever and whatever I could. And, by the way, the blocking was excellent. None of that could have happened if Cutler hadn't had time to throw, or I couldn't have seen clear way down the field."
Hester left the game briefly with shoulder soreness, but, by the end of the game, he felt the affected area was "almost normal. Winning makes the aches disappear."
No. 23 chuckled when asked how he manages to tip-toe up and down the sideline north-and-south the way he does, as opposed to simply cutting across the field east-and-west when nearing the boundary.
"I followed my blockers and turned on the speed," he explained. "It's mostly a matter of instinct. By now, I know where I am in relation to the out-of-bounds markers. One thing I did, though, was to change my spikes at halftime. It was a little slippery today. The last thing I wanted was to slip out of bounds without getting pushed there."
The Bears travel to Miami in three days to face the Dolphins on Thursday night. It will be a return that Hester, once a celebrated Hurricane while at "The U," is anticipating with understandable enthusiasm.
"That's where I'm from," he said. "That's where I played college ball. You can bet I'm thrilled to have the chance to play in South Florida. My friends will be there. My family plans to come. Some of my former college teammates will be around that night. I'm expecting to be able to look up into the stands and see a lot of familiar faces. I won't have much of a chance to catch up with anybody while we're there, but just knowing they are around will be a wonderful thing."
Any special plans to showcase his skills for the hometown crowd?
"That isn't my decision," said Hester. "I leave everything to the coaches because I know they know how to use me best. We might have a few tricks up our sleeves, though. You never know where I might turn up once the game starts. It's definitely going to be fun.
"Guess you all are going to have to watch and see what happens."
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Beth Gorr has been covering the Chicago Bears for 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.
Less O, More STs for Windy City Flyer
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