Just Give Him the Damn Ball!

Devin Hester wants to follow in the footsteps of his idol and mentor, Deion Sanders. Trouble is, Sanders was arguably the greatest cover cornerback of all time. Hester may be an incredible natural athlete, but he might never develop into a dependable defensive back at the NFL level. Moving him over to offense is the only way to fully take advantage of his considerable skills.

In the NFL these days, the list of players that make fans creep to the edge of their seats is a pretty short one. Fortunately for the Bears, Devin Hester's name is on that list.

Hester became the first player in Super Bowl history to return the opening kickoff for a touchdown. He raced 92 yards in electrifying fashion and brought Dolphin Stadium into a frenzy in the process. The Bears had a 7-0 lead just 14 seconds into the ballgame.

The Monsters of the Midway would eventually lose Super Bowl XLI to Indianapolis 29-17, partially because their most dangerous weapon was neutralized. The Colts learned their lesson and squib-kicked the rest of the game to keep the ball out of Hester's hands. The Bears may have been given great field position every time, but the threat of a quick lightning strike had been eliminated.

So since Hester is arguably the most dangerous open-field runner in Chicago since the days of Gale Sayers, wouldn't it make sense to find more ways to get him the ball as often as possible?

Like, say, on offense?

A second-rounder in last year's draft out of Miami, GM Jerry Angelo took some heat for investing that high of a pick on a player that predominantly contributed on special teams. Hester had played everywhere from nickelback to fullback and just about everywhere in between as a Hurricane, but his skills were raw and his experience was limited. Nevertheless, there was no denying his talent in the return game.

It certainly didn't take long for Hester to make an impact. He returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown in the season-opening 26-0 shellacking of the hated Packers. Just a few weeks later, he pulled another rabbit out of his hat by returning a punt 83 yards for a score with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to steal a 24-23 victory in Arizona.

Hester hysteria was sweeping Chicagoland, but the rookie was just getting started.

Teammate and fellow cornerback Nathan Vasher set a league record during the 2005 season by returning a Joe Nedney missed field goal attempt 108 yards for a TD against San Francisco. Nobody in the 86-year history of the NFL had ever authored a play of that distance, yet Vasher wouldn't own his record outright for very long. In Week 10 at Giants Stadium, Hester matched it by returning an errant Jay Feely field goal try from eight yards deep in his own end zone and racing all the way to paydirt virtually untouched.

Hester scored yet again on a punt return against Minnesota in Week 13, but just when it seemed he had done it all as a specialist, he wowed the nation once more.

The next week on Monday Night Football, Hester was finally given the full-time job as kick returner replacing Rashied Davis. He scored not once but twice on kickoffs in a 42-27 Bears victory, the first from 94 yards out and the second from 96. Hester had now scored on six returns in 2006 - three punts, two kickoffs, and the missed field goal - and made a case for himself as perhaps the most exciting player in the NFL.

Despite the fact that he attended Miami, it turns out that one of Florida State's most decorated athletes of all time, Deion Sanders, has become Hester's mentor.

"I look at Devin like the little brother I never had," Sanders said after Hester's two-touchdown performance in St. Louis. "I love him. Devin is a very shy kid. He plays the game loud, but off the field he is very shy."

Hester appreciates the fact that Sanders had similar experiences in football and wants to pass on what he's learned.

"Deion has been there for me in the NFL, but also in college," Hester said during Super Bowl week. "When he tells you to do something, it's in your own best interests. He never steered me the wrong way. He always steered me in the right direction. He's more a mentor - a bigger brother that's been in the league. He knows what I'm getting ready to face. Deion is a great guy. I'm glad that I was one of the guys that he chose to take under his wings, and I'm hoping we can continue our relationship like that."

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Sanders played a good deal on offense himself, mostly when he was in Dallas. As a matter of fact, he started at both cornerback and wide receiver in the same game a few times when the Cowboys were decimated by injuries at wideout. On top of that, Sanders is the only player in Super Bowl history to record an interception and a reception.

Bears head coach Lovie Smith was asked about getting Hester some time on the other side of the ball after that scintillating performance against the Rams.

"Could Devin play offense? Yes, he could," Smith said. "Would [offensive coordinator] Ron Turner like to have Devin on the offensive side of the football? Yes. [But] we think we have a plan for Devin right now."

Hester has maintained all along that he wants to play cornerback - probably because that's where Sanders became a legend - but remains open to the possibility of making a change.

"I want to do whatever it takes to win," Hester said after Smith's comments. "If it ended up with me going to offense and making a play here or there, that's what I'm willing to do. But as I told coach Lovie, I love being a defensive back. That's what I want to be in life. That's where my heart is."

The Bears are in pretty good shape at corner going into next season. Vasher and Charles Tillman remain the starters, and Ricky Manning Jr. played well as the nickelback for most of 2006. Hester saw some time in the secondary toward the end of the year when first Vasher and then Tillman were out of the lineup with minor injuries, but he was not impressive. He was abused by the Rams' Torry Holt for an easy TD catch in Week 14 and torched by the Colts' Reggie Wayne on a 72-yard scoring strike in last Saturday's Pro Bowl.

Fairly reliable backup cornerbacks can be found in free agency and in the draft. However, potential once-in-a-lifetime offensive weapons don't grow on trees.

Wherever he eventually ends up on the field, Sanders believes Hester has only scratched the surface of what he can do.

"You guys haven't seen a 10th of what he's going to bring to the NFL," Sanders said.

Hester enjoyed his whirlwind tour as a first-year player, but he says he's not finished yet.

"It's been a very exciting year," Hester said after returning from the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. "It shows that you've got to seize the moment. It was a great experience. I set goals for myself and had a chance to accomplish some of them. I'm hoping that I can continue the rest of my career like this."

But if the Bears are wise, they'll have Hester catching passes in 2007 instead of defending them.


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