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Road to Canton: Remembering Devin Hester's remarkable rookie season

On the 23rd of every month leading up to his Hall of Fame induction in August, chronicles a different aspect of Devin Hester's illustrious career. In the second of a 5-part series, senior writer Larry Mayer chronicles Hester's record-breaking rookie season with the 2006 NFC champion Bears. Read Part 1 here.

“Devin Hester made special teams fun … Devin made everybody watch special teams.” Former Bears cornerback Charles Tillman

Devin Hester started his sensational rookie year with a bang and finished it with a sonic boom that's still reverberating 18 years later.

After being selected by the Bears in the second round of the 2006 draft out of Miami, Hester made an immediate impact. In his first NFL game, he returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown late in a 26-0 rout of the Packers in Green Bay.

Nearly five months later, the electrifying rookie became the first (and still the only) player in NFL history to return the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl for a touchdown when he raced 92 yards against the Indianapolis Colts.

Hester was named first-team All-Pro as a rookie after setting a league record with five kick return touchdowns, a total that does not include his Super Bowl score or a 108-yard TD return of a missed field goal in a midseason win over the New York Giants.

Just like when a Hall of Fame slugger steps into the batter's box, Hester transformed every return into a can't-miss event for every fan in the stadium and at home watching on TV.

"Devin Hester made special teams fun," former Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, who blocked for Hester on punt and kickoff returns, told "Normally when there's a punt, people are like, 'OK, I'm going to take a bathroom break or grab a beer.' When Devin played, it was like, 'Oh, it's fourth down. It's a time to watch!' Devin made everybody watch special teams."

Return TD #1 - Week 1 at Packers

That phenomenon began in Week 1 in Green Bay when Hester first proved he could carry over what he did at Miami, where he returned four punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns in three seasons.

"That's what you look for," said then-Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. "When you draft a player, because you're in the projection business, is he going to do for us what he did at his school? And we saw that early, that this isn't going to be too big for him."

"That should have told us right then what we were going to get from the guy," said then-Bears coach Lovie Smith. "All that pressure on him as a rookie, the magnitude of the Bears-Packers game, for him to do that ..."

Tillman, who helped escort Hester into the end zone against the Packers, knew the rookie was going to be a star from that day forward. But Tillman recalled that a veteran teammate had been raving about the rookie beginning in training camp.

"I do remember [former safety] Mike Brown saying, 'Hey, this kid is special. He's really good, He's a special player,'" Tillman said. "Mike Brown said that from Day 1 in practice. He said it before anybody else, at least he said it to me."


Despite opening the season against their fiercest rival in a hostile road environment, the Bears had no qualms about putting Hester back to return punts.

"It says an awful lot about a rookie returning punts in his first game," Smith said. "That takes a little nerve unless that guy is special and you know that you need him back there, and we were all in agreement by the time we got to that Green Bay game that Hester was going to return punts … There were some hard decisions that I had to make when I was the Bears' coach, but that wasn't one of them."

Return TD #2 - Week 6 at Cardinals

Hester's second NFL touchdown helped lift the Bears to a miraculous comeback win over the Cardinals in a Monday night game in Arizona. Trailing 23-3 late in the third quarter, the defense generated two TDs to close the gap to 23-17. Hester's 83-yard punt return TD with 2:58 remaining then gave the Bears an improbable 24-23 victory, raising their record to 6-0.


Hester's 152 punt return yards against the Cardinals set a Bears record, eclipsing the 134 yards that Hall of Famer Gale Sayers had amassed in his NFL record-tying six touchdown performance in a 61-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers Dec. 12, 1965, at Wrigley Field.

Return TD #3 - Week 9 at Giants

Three weeks later, Hester created more magic for another national prime-time audience when he returned a missed field goal 108 yards for a touchdown in a 38-20 Sunday night road win over the Giants.


As Jay Feely got into position to attempt a 52-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, Hester dropped off the line of scrimmage and retreated to the back of the end zone. The Bears thought the Giants might pooch punt and wanted to have Hester in position to return it. But Feely instead booted the field goal, which fell well short.

Hester easily caught the ball, brilliantly hesitated for a moment in the end zone and then raced up the right sideline along the Bears bench, where a wall of blockers had formed. Tillman delivered the key block, wiping out offensive lineman Shaun O'Hara. Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, defensive end Israel Idonije and linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer also made blocks to spring Hester.

Return TD #4 - Week 13 vs. Vikings

Hester's next touchdown came on a 45-yard punt return in a 23-13 NFC North-clinching victory over the Minnesota Vikings Dec. 3 at Soldier Field. He scored after scooping up Chris Kluwe's 37-yard punt on the third hop, drifting a few steps to his right, breaking through two arm tackles and then bolting across the middle of the field before turning up the left sideline.

"It was a left return," Hester said after the game. "I knew I still had enough time to pick it up and run, and just kind of gave a right jab and brought it back around to the left. My teammates picked up their guys and Charles Tillman led me into the end zone."


After three scores on the road, it was Hester's first touchdown in Chicago.

"Hester's great," Urlacher said after the game. "We've all seen how good he is. The guy is unbelievable. I wouldn't kick to him if I was a special teams coach. He's amazing."

Return TDs #5 and 6 - Week 14 at Rams

Hester once again made history while playing in the national prime-time spotlight in Week 14. He fueled a 42-27 Monday night win over the Rams in St. Louis by returning kickoffs of 94 and 96 yards for touchdowns.

In the process, he became just the sixth player in league history with two kickoff return TDs in a game.


Return TD #7 - Super Bowl XLI vs. Colts

Even after a remarkable regular season, Hester saved his best for last, producing the signature play of his career when he returned the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI 92 yards for a TD in southern Florida, where he grew up and played his college ball.

"He always had confidence," Tillman said. "All the returns that he had during the regular season, I think it only boosted his confidence even more. So going into the Super Bowl, he's playing in Florida, his hometown, his family right around the corner. It's safe to say his confidence was at an all-time high. He was feeling himself, as he should. I don't think he felt pressure. He was just as calm, cool and collective as he wanted to be."

In the next edition of "Road to Canton" focusing on Hester May 23, we'll take an in-depth look at his historic kickoff return TD in Super Bowl XLI.

Take a look back at the Bears career of legendary return specialist and new Pro Football Hall of Famer Devin Hester, who recorded 34 touchdowns during his eight seasons in Chicago.

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