Good luck trying to catch Devin Hester. The Atlanta Falcons wide receiver and return specialist leaves a trail of defenders flat on their faces, breaks tackles, and leaps over linebackers on his way to the end zone. That instinct for making people miss is how Hester — widely considered the best kick returner ever — became the first player in the NFL to score a touchdown on the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl, in 2007.
Seven years later, Hester is still making history. In September, he broke the NFL mark for most career return touchdowns (20). It's fitting that Hester — who in breaking the record surpassed his childhood idol, Hall of Famer Deion (Prime Time) Sanders — now plays for the Falcons, a team with the catchphrase "Rise Up." It's in his nature to do just that.
"I've had some victories and faced adversity," says Hester, who is 31 years old. "But no matter what, you have to keep working to reach your goals."
THE GREAT ESCAPE
While growing up in Riviera Beach, Florida, Hester didn't just play football for fun. His Pop Warner football team also provided him a chance to escape.
When Hester was 10 years old, his mother, Juanita, was in a severe car crash that almost left her paralyzed. "I remember watching my mom struggle to walk. Her entire body was affected by the accident, from her neck to her toes. It was difficult to see her like that," Hester recalls. "She went to rehab, but it was a long recovery."
The car crash was followed by the death of his father, Lennorris, two years later. "It was hard," says Hester. "My mother's accident and father's death happened in such a short period of time. Football helped me get through it."
All of the hours Hester spent on the football field lifted his spirits — and he soon became one of the best players in Florida. By the time he finished his senior year, Hester was the No. 1 prospect in the state and was ranked No. 6 nationally across all positions according to SuperPrep. He had also accumulated 2,042 total yards and 21 touchdowns.
Hester's impressive high school career landed him at the University of Miami, where he played offense and defense for three seasons. During his freshman year, in 2003, he played wideout and special teams. As a sophomore, Hester scored four return touchdowns, second-most in the country, which earned him a spot on the Walter Camp All-America team as the NCAA's best kick returner. And during his junior year, he racked up 12 tackles playing mostly cornerback.
Hester didn't just wow stadium crowds. He also impressed spectators who watched him in the long jump pit. Hester, who was ranked second nationally in the long jump while in high school, won the 2004 Big East Indoor Championship in the event before making the leap to the NFL.
HIGH-STEPPING INTO HISTORY
Drafted as a cornerback by the Bears as the 57th pick in 2006, Hester played his first eight pro seasons in Chicago, where he built a reputation for being an explosive return specialist. During his rookie year, Hester darted up the sideline for an NFL-record-tying 108-yard touchdown after snagging a missed field goal against the New York Giants. One month later, he returned not one, but two kicks for touchdowns against the St. Louis Rams. His 92-yarder against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI that season was the quickest touchdown scored in a title game (mere seconds after kickoff). And that was only his rookie year. (See sidebar for more of Hester's best performances.)
The Bears also began playing Hester at receiver after that highlight-filled rookie season, but he became best known for his game-changing returns.
Hester says vision is the key to his success. "You've got to have good instincts," says Hester, who has 5,734 career yards on kickoff returns. "It's the ability to see something before it actually happens, like looking for holes to open up. That's your chance to take it all the way to the end zone. And you need to be fast. Those holes close up quickly."
Hester's vision also helped him make a tough decision this past off-season when the Bears didn't re-sign him.
With the organization moving in a different direction and considering his lack of production (he had one return touchdown over his last two years in Chicago and didn't play a down at wideout last season), Hester was in search of a new home. "Chicago was where I got my start, so it was hard walking away," says Hester. "[I had] so many memories and experiences there."
Hester said 15 teams reached out to his agent before he made the decision to sign with Atlanta. Hester's explosiveness is just what the Falcons, who lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the conference title game as recently as two years ago, needed. With Hester and his fellow wideouts Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Harry Douglas, the Hawks have one of the top receiving corps in the NFL. "You can't say enough about him," Atlanta QB Matt Ryan says. "He hustles and makes big plays. Devin has been awesome."
And Hester believes the change happened for a reason. "In the end it all worked out for the best," he says. "It's a fresh start for me in Atlanta. I feel like it's a relearning phase. New system, new players, new city. It's been really good so far."
Actually, Hester has been better than good this season. He had five catches for 99 yards in the Falcons' season opener against the New Orleans Saints. Two games later, he rewrote the history book, becoming the NFL's alltime return touchdown leader as he high-stepped into the end zone (mirroring Sanders's signature move) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a 62-yard punt return.
The return didn't just break a record. It was also emblematic of Hester's re-energized career.
Photos: DALE ZANINE/USA TODAY SPORTS (Saints), SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/GETTY IMAGES (celebration)