Footballs don’t have personalities. They don’t have hopes and dreams, fears and regrets. They are, by most accounts, inanimate objects. But sometimes they seem to be more than footballs. When a diminutive Boston College quarterback cocked back his arm the ball had to know the opportunity for immortality was present. When Sweetness electrified the city of Chicago he held the ball in his palm like the Olympic torch – fitting for a man who was the organization’s only beacon of light for so long.
For five years I thought the football was afraid. Afraid of what came next. Afraid of the unknown. Afraid to leave the peacefulness of the Sunday sky and find the waiting arms of Devin Hester. The ball hovered in the sky long enough to drain every bead of sweat from the opposing sideline and every audible gasp from the sixty-thousand plus gather on Chicago’s lakefront. When Hester was right these were the most exciting moments in the NFL. The moments before the moment.
Hester has not been right for some time. Everyone has their reasons why, ranging from the limited shelf life of elite kick returners to an overload of information in Hester’s main frame due to the previous regime’s ill-advised insistence on making The Skunk into a full-time wide receiver. Hester was not only failing to score with regularity. He was also failing to move the ball forward and – in many cases – failing to catch the ball period.
Then something happened. Phil Emery surprised a majority of the football world and fired head coach Lovie Smith. Hester responded with the emotionally irrationality:
“I don’t even know if I want to play again, man,” Hester said. “You know, that’s been on my mind for two years now.
“It’s not (as much fun anymore). It ain’t. So, I have my workers’ comp papers in my pocket. See how I feel, go home and talk to my wife, my family. See where we go from there. I’ve got two beautiful kids, man, young. Two boys. A lot of stress has been on my mind lately.”
All of sudden the fan base that adored Hester began to sprinkle the words “trade” and “done” into conversations about him. As Dave Toub left Chicago for Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs, the writing seemed to be on the wall that Hester was also moving southeast.
Hester and the Bears were at a crossroads. And while I hate using the phrase “at a crossroads” I simply don’t have a replacement in the vocabularic arsenal. (Side note: if vocabularic is not a word, it should be. Because it’s wonderful.)
Now it was on the Bears.
Phil Emery said the organization did not take seriously Hester’s retirement talk:
“Obviously, Devin’s under contract, so if he sent his retirement papers in, I would know,” Emery said, via Adam J. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “But I don’t anticipate that. I think he’s a great competitor. I think that was an emotional situation that evoked an emotional response, and I certainly understand that.”
New head coach Marc Trestman iterated a desire to keep Hester, with one caveat: “Devin is strictly a specialist right now”.
New special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis set out his goal to not only return Hester to the return ace of years gone by but also utilize his speed and football instincts in other facets of the special teams game From a Potash piece in the Sun-Times:
‘‘He’s definitely going to be fresher to do those things [by not playing on offense],’’ DeCamillis said. ‘‘That’s something we’re evaluating. He’ll be working on all the cover teams and working some other things for us, too. He’s a great weapon, and we want to use him as much as we can.’’
If Hester can avoid blockers like he can tacklers, he would be an ideal gunner on the punt-coverage unit.
‘‘The biggest thing about a great gunner is sometimes it’s the guy who can get there the fastest,’’ DeCamillis said. ‘‘We had a guy in Denver who was an Olympic sprinter named Sam Gaddy. Sam wasn’t the best tackler in the world. But he sure caused a lot of fair catches. Hopefully we can expand [Hester’s] role and see what happens.’’
Suddenly Hester was happy again. He said so himself:
“Me and coach Trestman talked before I went home for the break and we came up with the idea that I would just go back to being a key return man — a punt return and kickoff return man — and a little bit more special teams,” Hester said. “That would be what I know as of now my role to be for the upcoming season.”
It all begins anew for Hester on Sunday September 8th. Can Hester regain the form that should have, in my opinion, cemented his Hall of Fame status as the greatest return man to ever live? Can Hester alter opposing game plans in the Joniak-coined ridiculous fashion that forced punts into the third row and kickoffs barely by the midfield marker? Can he reignite the passion of the Soldier Field faithful who would have paid the exorbitant ticket prices just to see him field a few punts on a cold Sunday afternoon?
Will the ball ever again hover afraid in the Chicago sky, anticipating the unknown moment to come? There can’t be a Bears fan alive hoping for anything else.