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Road to Canton: Remembering the night Devin Hester made history
Story by Larry Mayer

On the 23rd of every month leading up to Devin Hester's Hall of Fame induction in August, chronicles a different aspect of his illustrious career. In the third of a five-part series, senior writer Larry Mayer reflects on Hester's historic 92-yard kickoff return touchdown in Super Bowl XLI.

Read: Part 1, Part 2

As the Indianapolis Colts' Adam Vinatieri teed up the ball for the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI Feb. 4, 2007, in soggy south Florida, Devin Hester excitedly jumped up and down and clapped his hands in anticipation.

Yet even as Vinatieri approached the ball, the Bears' electrifying return specialist still had no idea if he would get an opportunity to return it. There was debate all week about whether the Colts would kick to Hester, who set an NFL record as a rookie in 2006 with five kick return touchdowns.

"I never knew for sure until the actual kickoff," Hester told

As the ball soared end-over-end—piercing through a background of bright flashbulbs—Hester was shocked that it was headed in his direction.

"The words that came out of my mouth were 'holy s---," he said.

The former University of Miami standout drifted to his left and caught the ball between the numbers and the sideline at the Bears' 8. He cut inside and faked out unblocked Colts linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, then bounced outside to the right.

Vinatieri made a futile diving attempt, landing face first and keeping his helmet buried in the grass for several seconds. Hester outraced two more Colts, watching himself on the videoboard. He slowed down a bit as he approached the end zone, allowing safety Matt Giordano to catch him. But Giordano didn't reach Hester until after he had crossed the goal line for what remains the only touchdown return of an opening kickoff in Super Bowl history.

"It was a middle return because we didn't know where they were kicking the ball," Hester said. "There wasn't such a clear path. The guys were in their lanes. I had to put a good move on [Hagler]. I don't know how I was able to make that type of move, but once I made that one guy miss it was pretty much daylight for me."

Hester knew he was gone as soon as he passed Vinatieri.

"There was too much open field, so I knew right then and there," Hester said. "It wasn't a situation where I was pinned to a sideline and had the sideline working against me. We were in the open field, so I knew he wasn't going to get me."

The magnitude of what Hester had accomplished hit him when he celebrated with teammates in the end zone.

"It was just like, 'Wow, this is really happening. This is the Super Bowl, my first opportunity to play in the Super Bowl,'" Hester said. "To be able to start the game off like that was shocking for me."

Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub raised his arms over his head in exhilaration as Hester bolted past him on the sideline.

"I remember thinking, 'I can't believe it,' because it was the Super Bowl," Toub said. "I still get goosebumps thinking about it because it was so cool."


One of the blocks that helped spring Hester on the play was delivered by Pro Bowl special teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo.

"I just remember Devin running to the end zone and me trying to get there and celebrate with him," Ayanbadejo said. "I remember everybody being jazzed and excited and I remember being extremely tired because I had to go right back out there on the kickoff team. Also, I was thinking, 'Man, what a great start to an amazing game. This is the exact way that we wanted to start the football game.'"

On the flip side, it was obviously the worst way to start the game for the Colts, whose coverage teams ranked 30th in the NFL on punts and 31st on kickoffs. Indianapolis was apparently planning to keep the ball out of Hester's hands until changing its strategy on the eve of the game.

"For 10 days, we talked about never letting him touch the ball," then-Colts coach Tony Dungy said last year during an interview on Football Night in Chicago on NBC Sports Chicago. "We practiced all week in Indianapolis: squib kicking, kick it to the corner, punting out of bounds. He's not going to touch the ball.

"The Saturday before the game we have a chapel service. And the chaplain talks about David and Goliath. And he says, 'The reason that David handled Goliath was that he wasn't afraid of him. Everybody else was afraid. They ran away from Goliath. David ran straight at him.'

"After 14 days of 'we're not going to let Devin Hester touch the ball,' I started thinking, 'Are we afraid of Devin Hester? Maybe we need to be like David. Maybe we just need to go right at him.'

"So I told the team after the chapel service, 'If we lose the toss, you know what? We're kicking off. We're kicking right down the middle. We're going to pound him. And when he falls like Goliath, the game will be over.'"

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.

Although the Bears weren't certain the Colts were going to kick to Hester, they had an inkling it would happen because of the magnitude of the moment.

"Saturday night I told our special teams unit they're going to kick to us because this is the Super Bowl," Toub said. "All the lights going off. They're not going to kick a squib kick; they're going to kick the ball deep and we're going to get it in our hands, I guarantee it."

The more Bears Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman thought about it from the Colts' perspective, the more he expected Hester to get the ball.

"It's the Super Bowl," said Tillman, who often played on the Bears' punt and kickoff return units. "If you kick it out of bounds, you're just kind of saying, 'Hey, you're the greatest, I give.' So the special teams coach for Indy was [likely thinking], 'I've got some good players. My 11 guys are better than Chicago's 11 guys, I'll kick it to him.' I think that's just the coach having confidence in his 11 guys. I just think he picked the wrong time and wrong play to have confidence in those 11 guys because I would take our special teams players any day of the week."

Although the Colts rallied to beat the Bears 29-17—and kept the ball away from Hester most of the rest of the game—they no doubt regretted giving the Hall of Fame return specialist a chance to make history.

"A funny thing about it is that [then Colts receiver] Reggie Wayne and I went out together the same night after the Super Bowl," Hester said. "We were at a club talking about it the whole night. He was like, 'Man, I told them not to kick it to you!'"

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