By: Jordan Kendall, Senior Staff Writer
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame will reduce the 123 modern era nominees for the Class of 2022 to 25 semi finalists soon. One of the nominees who is getting a lot of attention is former Chicago Bears return specialist Devin Hester. It seems that a lot of people on social media believe he doesn’t deserve it. I disagree, and will discuss why in this week’s column.
Hester’s best argument is that he is the all-time leader in kickoff and punt return touchdowns with 20. Of the 20 touchdowns, 14 are off punt returns which is also a record. He’s one of two players with at least 10 punt return touchdowns, and the only one from the last 15 years.
He also holds the single season record with four punt return touchdowns and six combined return touchdowns, both in 2007. Hester is also third all-time in punt return yards with 3,695 yards and is tied for second in punt return average of players from the last 30 years with 11.7.
One of the common rebuttals is that Hester lacks the numbers as a kick returner. He is 12th in yards with 7,333 yards and is tied for ninth with five touchdowns. He’s also only 70th in average with 24.9.
Those who believe he doesn’t deserve a gold jacket also point out the fact that returners are only used a handful of times a game. They aren’t on the field as much as an offensive or defensive player is, so their impact on the game is limited.
It’s true that returners aren’t on the field as much, however, I don’t believe this limits their impact. When a returner breaks off a 50-yard return or an 80-yard touchdown, that can completely change the game.
Those types of plays are a lot rarer than a running back or wide receiver doing the same thing. Because returners are on the field less, I think their impact on the game is as big, if not bigger than an offensive or defensive player.
I believe Hester is the greatest returner of all-time. Even if that role is limited compared to other positions, being the greatest at your position should be more than enough for a gold jacket. He may only be eighth all-time in combined return yards with 11,028, but I don’t remember the return yards as much as return touchdowns.
I don’t think the yards are as important because even if you return a kick over 50 yards that doesn’t guarantee your offense points. Compare it to a 90-yard return touchdown that guarantees at least six points. By taking it all the way, your offense doesn’t have to worry about capitalizing off a great return. If you can do that better than anyone in the history of football, you deserve a spot in Canton.
Not only does Hester have the numbers, he also has the moments. He’s the only player in NFL history to take the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl back for a touchdown. When he broke the combined return touchdown record, he did so in Atlanta while playing for the Falcons.
This was significant because former Falcons cornerback and returner, Hall of Famer Deion Sanders was the previous record holder. Hester broke the record where Sanders made his mark and with Sanders in attendance.
These two moments will forever be a part of NFL history. You can’t tell the history of the game without either of them. That matters to me in whether someone is a Hall of Famer or not. I believe you cannot tell the history of the NFL without mentioning Hester’s name. That makes him a Hall of Famer to me.
I am a firm believer in giving special teams players the respect they deserve. I think several of the special teams finalists this year have waited way too long for a spot in Canton. Former Buffalo Bills gunner Steve Tasker and former Towson and New York Giants punter Sean Landeta are two others deserving of a gold jacket.
It’s time we give special teams players including Hester the respect they deserve. They impact the game a lot more than fans give them credit for. A big return or a punt downed at the one can change the game. Whether you want to admit it or not, specialists like Hester are not only football players, but Hall of Fame worthy football players.