The Bears' record book is filled with impressive special teams return performances. In November 2005, on an afternoon with the wind swirling off Lake Michigan in a violent fashion, cornerback Nathan Vasher camped out under the uprights, awaiting a 52-yard field goal attempt by San Francisco placekicker Joe Nedney with three seconds left in the first half.
When the breeze pushed the kick short and wide right of the goalpost, Vasher caught the ball, spun around a pair of 49ers and followed a convoy down the sideline for a 108-yard touchdown return. At the time it was the longest play in NFL history.
A year later, Vasher gained some company. Chicago rookie Devin Hester already had two touchdowns to his name when New York Giants kicker Jay Feely attempted a 52-yard field goal against the Bears in a primetime game at Giants Stadium. Feely's kick landed just short of the goalpost, and Hester immediately took the ball the other way, sprinting 108 yards for a score. In two years, Bears players had the top two spots on the NFL's all-time touchdown yardage list.
In the 10-plus seasons since Hester's record-tying score, eight players have had touchdowns of either 108 or 109 yards, but only one other player has scored off a missed field goal. It's a talent that appears to be almost unique to the Bears, and on Saturday night, the team added another name to the list.
Though it is just the preseason so it won't count in the record books, Chicago returner Deonte Thompson joined Vasher and Hester. On the final play of the first half of the Bears' 24-23 win at Arizona, Thompson returned a missed Phil Dawson kick 109 yards for a touchdown. The play electrified the crowd and provided a much-needed spark to the Bears heading into the locker room.
Deonte Thompson celebrates after returning a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown in Saturday night's preeason game in Arizona.
"When he first kicked, I saw one guy, he was coming down full speed, and I knew if I made him miss I had a good chance of scoring," Thompson told the Chicago Bears Network following the victory. "I haven't run 109 yards in a while, so I got a little tired at the end. But it was good, man, just great to finish the half like that and give us momentum going into the second half."
The historic return almost didn't happen. With the Bears leading 10-7 and the clock ticking down at the end of the second quarter, Arizona quarterback Drew Stanton hit receiver Jeremy Ross for an 8-yard pickup. Ross appeared to run out of bounds after the time expired, but Cardinals coach Bruce Arians argued that a single second should be put back on the clock. Though Bears players had already begun jogging to the locker room, thinking the half was over, and Chicago head coach John Fox insisted time had run out, the game's officials eventually agreed with Arians. Arizona sent out its field goal team, hoping to capitalize on their bonus time.
Fox countered by putting out a different lineup than what the Cardinals expected. After taking a timeout, the Bears did not try to block the kick, but instead lined up for a field goal return. Fox placed Thompson in the back of the team's end zone, hoping to catch anything that landed short of the upright. At the 25-yard line was linebacker Jerrell Freeman to serve as a blocker in case Thompson did end up with the football in his hands.
The plan worked to perfection. When Dawson's attempt sailed wide right, Thompson caught the ball at the back of the end zone and evaded a pair of Arizona tacklers. As soon as the ball had been kicked, the Chicago defensive line began blocking, so when Thompson gained possession he already had a clear path down the field. He cut back towards midfield to escape the Arizona kicker and holder, but neither specialist was going to catch Thompson, a former track star at the University of Florida. In the span of just over 20 seconds, the Bears went from thinking the score would be tied at halftime if Arizona made its field goal to being up by 10 points going into the locker room.
Thompson's return changed the game for the Bears, helping the team to a victory on Saturday and adding another name to the lineage of historic field goal returners in franchise history.