For Devin Hester, it's all about the four seconds from the time the ball hits the punter's foot until it falls into his waiting arms. Sometimes the ball comes hard and fast. Sometimes it floats and falls slowly from the sky. Of the two options, Hester greatly prefers the former.
"It's as though I have an internal clock in my head," said Hester. "I'm not really aware of it but I'm counting down in my mind. If the ball comes to me quickly I have a good chance of getting pretty far down the field before the defenders arrive. If it's slower than that it gives the guys who are bearing down on me the time they need to stop my progress."
He knew right away that Carolina punter Scott Baker's kick early in the second quarter wasn't hit squarely.
PR Devin Hester
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
"I could see it wobble a little bit," Hester said. "It didn't come as fast as I'd expected it to."
He then noticed Carolina's special teams players breaking down too far away from the ball.
"I probably got the ball in exactly four seconds, which is the outer edge of my window to begin to return the punt," Hester said. "But the fact that their defensive guys stopped before they got to me gave me the extra time that I needed to make a good play."
It was more than good; it was record breaking. He made one quick cut through the wall of defenders and raced 69 yards to pay dirt. It was Hester's 11th career punt return TD, a new NFL record, surpassing the previous mark set by Eric Metcalf.
"It wasn't all my doing," he said. "There were some great blocks out there clearing my way down the field. This was a total team effort.
"I know there have been many who have criticized us after the losses to New Orleans and Green Bay. We did some retooling and have worked on our communication on the field this past week. Today the work paid off."
He didn't earn a catch in the game but his punt return TD put the Bears ahead 24-10, a lead they would never relinquish. The Bears' 34-29 victory now puts them at 2-2 on the season and keeps them firmly in playoff contention.
Hester said the win was more important than his place in the record books.
"There are many aspects to my game," he said. "Punks, kicks, passes, whatever. I just try to go out there and do my best on every play. If I'm able to return one for a touchdown then that's great.
"But this isn't about personal glory or breaking records, it's all about helping this team to get the wins. That happened today and I couldn't be more pleased about how things turned out. And to get the NFL record for punt returns too, well that's icing on the cake."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 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.