Friday, December 24, 2010

Many Happy Returns

     The Bears clinched the NFC North Division championship Monday night with an impressive 40-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. It marks the Bears' tenth division title since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, and it would not have been accomplished without Devin Hester, who has rebounded from two subpar seasons to re-establish himself as the best kickoff and punt returner in the game today and as the greatest of all time.
     Hester came into the game, the 74th of his career, tied for the most return touchdowns in league history with Brian Mitchell, who had 13 in 223 games. It looked as though he would break the record when he got free on the opening kickoff of the second half. Alas, Hester was brought down at Minnesota's six-yard line after toting the ball 79 yards. So close and yet so far.
     But just minutes later, Hester fielded a punt at his own 36-yard line and took it to the house. It was the 14th return touchdown of his career, confirming him as the most proficient return man in history. Hester needed just 286 attempts to set the record, compared to 1,070 by Mitchell.
     "Right now, [Hester] is a Hall of Famer," said former All-Pro return man Deion Sanders. "I can't think of a returner ever playing the game with the impact he has. There is none."
     Well said, Deion. Hester's impact goes well beyond the touchdowns he scores. It also is felt in the field position he provides by his returns and when opponents sacrifice yardage by trying to kick away from him. His mere presence on the field is enormously disruptive to the Bears' opponents.
     Hester is a respectful, humble man, and after breaking the record he sought to deflect credit away from himself and toward the ten Bears special-teamers who accompany him on his jaunts toward paydirt. "I'm just glad that God put me on this team," he said.
     The official record of 14 return touchdowns does not count Hester's return of a missed field goal in 2006 or his electrifying kickoff return to open the 2007 Super Bowl. Even without those two "asterisks," however, Hester's record will never be broken by anyone but a truly great player. And before he is through, he might put the record at a level where it will never be broken, period.

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