Of all the first-year players eligible for the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2022, the most fascinating isn’t someone who was an offensive or defensive starter … or won a Super Bowl … or touched the ball more than a handful of times a game.
Nope, he’s none of these. He’s Devin Hester, return specialist extraordinaire. And he’s a test case for the Hall’s board of selectors.
That’s because as a special-teams standout, he’s almost -- by definition -- disqualified from a Hall-of-Fame conversation because … well, because of history. Plain and simple: Hall-of-Fame voters have a tough time warming up to specialists. Always have.
In fact, in nearly 60 years of voting they’ve put just three in Canton. Two are kickers; one is a punter. And that’s it.
There are no return specialists, though there could – and, maybe, should – be. Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, for instance, was a first-team all-decade returner twice – in the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, he was named as a returner for the NFL’s 75th and 100th anniversary teams.
Nice, huh? He’s the only member of the 75th anniversary team not enshrined in Canton.
Then there’s former return standout Brian Mitchell. He could do everything. Return kicks. Return punts. Run the ball. Score touchdowns. He even took a turn as an emergency quarterback. Most of all, he could produce yards. In fact, he’s second only to Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice in career all-purpose yardage with 23,330.
Nice, huh? He’s not in Canton, either. And, like Johnson, he’s never been discussed as a candidate.
So let’s move on to former Buffalo star Steve Tasker. He wasn’t the returner that Johnson or Mitchell was. He was more of a complete special-teams standout, known more for coverage skills so adroit that more than one of his teammates, including Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly, consider him the greatest special teams player of all time.
Tasker was a seven-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler, the first special-teams player named as a Pro Bowl MVP and a participant in four consecutive Super Bowls.
Nice, huh? He, too, has never been a Hall-of-Fame finalist.
Which brings us back to Devin Hester. Eligible for Canton in 2022, he may be the most extraordinary individual on the ballot, mostly because there was no one better at what he did – at least nobody since Hall-of-Famer Gale Sayers who, until Hester came along, was the measuring stick for returners.
But Sayers didn’t reach Canton as return specialist. He was one of the game’s greatest running backs. I know, Hester played another position, too. He was a wide receiver. But he was a part-time wide receiver who scored three fewer TDs there (16) than as a punt-and-kickoff returner (19) ... and it’s as a returner that he’ll be considered for Canton.
As he should, with former Chicago Bears' coach Lovie Smith -- the man who drafted Hester -- calling him "the greatest returner of all time."
Hester holds the league record for most career TDs on punt and kickoff returns. He’s also holds it for most career TDs scored on punt returns (14), as well as most combined non-offensive scores (20). In 2006, he returned a missed field goal 108 yards for a TD. In Super Bowl XLI he became the only player in the game’s history to score on the opening kickoff. In 2007, he had an NFL-record four punt returns for touchdowns and set the league record for most return TDs in a single season (6). Plus, his 4.4 touchdown percentage on career punt returns is the highest among Super Bowl-era returners.
I think you get the idea. Devin Hester was more than an outstanding returner. He was a weapon so dangerous that then-Detroit Lions’ coach Rod Marinelli instructed his punters and kickers to “kick the ball into Lake Michigan and make sure it (sinks) to the bottom.”
Hester was a four-time All-Pro. He was named to four Pro Bowls. And, like Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, he was a two-time all-decade choice and member of the NFL’s 100th anniversary team.
But look where that got Johnson. He was never a modern-era finalist, and he’s never been a senior finalist. Now look at Brian Mitchell. He compiled nearly 8,000 more return yards (19,013) than Hester (11,028). He hasn’t gotten a sniff, either.
Which is what makes Hester’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy so intriguing. As a return specialist, the guy’s an outlier. He’s trying to do what no one has – namely, become the first returner to reach Canton. And the odds and history are against him.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean voters are, too. They’ve been more receptive to specialists lately, with punter Ray Guy and kicker Morten Andersen enshrined the past eight years.
Of course, neither was a returner.
And therein lies the challenge: Hester vs. history, and it’s not as if he hasn’t been here before. Except this is different. Because reaching Canton will be more than a mountain to climb for Devin Hester. It will be one for Hall-of-Fame voters, too.