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Examining why Hester fell short of HOF, outlook for next year


Veteran NFL writer Dan Pompei is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee who strongly believes that former Bears star Devin Hester deserves to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

During a recent appearance on the Bears All Access radio show, Pompei shared his thoughts about why Hester didn't garner the necessary votes to be part of the Class of 2023 as well as his chances in the future.

For the second straight year, Hester was among 15 modern-era finalists. In his first year of eligibility in 2022, the record-breaking return specialist advanced to the final 10. But this year he did not.

"It was a big disappointment for me as a voter and someone who believes strongly in his qualifications," Pompei said on Bears All Access. "But I think part of this process is that we have many different voices and many different opinions, and we have to listen to them all."

The Selection Committee consists of 49 individuals—media representatives from the city of each NFL team in addition to 17 at-large selectors. The Committee pares down the 15 finalists to 10 and then five. At that point, the five are voted on, with an 80 percent "yes" vote required for enshrinement.

This year's final five all received the necessary 80 percent and will be part of the Hall of Fame's Class of 2023: Offensive tackle Joe Thomas; linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Zach Thomas; and defensive backs Ronde Barber and Darrelle Revis. The Class of 2023 also includes coach/contributor Don Coryell; and senior candidates Chuck Howley, Joe Klecko and Ken Riley.

All 15 finalists have their cases presented to the Selection Committee by their local representative. Based in Chicago, Pompei handles that responsibility for Bears Hall of Fame finalists, including Hester.

The finalists who finished 6-10 this year were Jared Allen, Torry Holt, Andre Johnson, Albert Lewis and Reggie Wayne. Of that group, only Johnson was in the top 10 last year, meaning that the other four all leapfrogged Hester.

According to Clark Judge, a member of the Selection Committee, the debate about Hester's candidacy lasted 31 minutes, 55 seconds, the third longest among the 15 finalists behind Wayne (33:48) and Lewis (33:39).

"There was back and forth," Pompei said. "It was a little contentious because there were a number of selectors who believe that a special teams player shouldn't be as validated as a player who plays 65 snaps a game, and there was some back and forth about that.

"I know there are a number of voters who believe strongly in Hester's candidacy, as I do, but there is a group that came out this year—we didn't hear from them much last year—and there were a number of them who said, 'Look, he only played so many snaps per game, how do we value that against somebody like DeMarcus Ware, who played more snaps per game?'

"So, that's the battle that we're fighting with Devin Hester. He's unique in NFL history. There's been nobody like him who's been inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who's been a specialist only. Very few special teams players have been inducted in the Hall of Fame. He's unique in the fact that he returned footballs better than anybody ever. [But] I think that's why this is not as clean a case as it would be if he had been a wide receiver or a cornerback or a linebacker."

The only special teams players in the Hall of Fame are kickers Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen and punter Ray Guy. George Blanda and Lou Groza are also kickers in the Hall of Fame but both played other positions as well.

Given Hester's impact, it certainly appears that he deserves to join them in Canton. Selected by the Bears in the second round of the 2006 draft out of Miami, he holds NFL records with 20 kick return touchdowns and 14 punt return TDs. He was voted to three Pro Bowls, won 13 special teams player of the week awards and was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000s.

Hester set an NFL single-season record with five kick return touchdowns as a rookie in 2006 and then eclipsed the mark with six TDs in 2007.

As a rookie, Hester returned a punt 84 yards for a TD in his first NFL game in a 26-0 rout of the Packers; lifted the Bears to a stunning 24-23 comeback victory over the Cardinals with a late 83-yard punt return TD; returned a missed field goal 108 yards for a TD in a win over the Giants; and set a single-game franchise record with 225 kickoff return yards in a victory over the Rams, including TDs of 94 and 96 yards.

Hester then capped his remarkable rookie season by becoming the first player in NFL history to return the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl for a touchdown, dashing 92 yards in an eventual 29-17 loss to the Colts.

In 2007, Hester returned four punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns. In a 37-34 overtime win over the Broncos, he scored TDs on a 75-yard punt return and 88-yard kickoff return.

Hester returned three punts for scores in 2010, two punts and one kickoff for TDs in 2011 and one punt for a touchdown in 2013. He remains the Bears' all-time leader in punt return yards (3,241), kickoff return yards (5,504), total kick return yards (8,745), punt returns (264) and kickoff returns (222).

Players who will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2024 for the first time include Eric Berry, Jamaal Charles, Antonio Gates, Andrew Luck, Brandon Marshall, Haloti Ngata and Julius Peppers.

Pompei said that he would be "really surprised" if Hester was not among the 15 finalists again next year.

"As I said, there are a number of voters who support him strongly, so I'm going to be shocked if he's not in the top 15 again," Pompei said. "Now it's just a matter whether or not you can advance him beyond that."

The discourse that Pompei heard will help him tweak next year's presentation for Hester.

"As you have these conversations in the room, it helps you understand what the hurdles are that you have to get over," Pompei said. "This year I really didn't know how strong some of these people felt about the fact that a special teams player is not on the same ground with an offensive or defensive player. So now I know that.

"The thing I've been emphasizing with them and will continue to emphasize is that even in a fewer amount of snaps or a fewer amount of touches, he had a greater impact than the large majority of players in the history of the National Football League. It just comes down to trying to find ways to illustrate that and win over some of the people who might feel otherwise."

Pompei remains optimistic that Hester will eventually be voted into the Hall of Fame. Two members of this year's class had long waits: Thomas had been on the ballot for a decade and was a finalist for the fourth straight year. Barber was in his sixth year of eligibility and third year as a finalist.

"I think time is going to be [Hester's] friend in this process, as it was a friend of Zach Thomas, for instance," Pompei said. "I think what happens is some voters kind of see this as you're in a queue, you get in line, and over time finally you come to the front of the line.

"I think there's going to be a day when Devin Hester, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, comes to the front of the line."