There are just 23 days remaining until the Chicago Bears' home opener against the Green Bay Packers on September 10th. To celebrate the start of the season inching closer and closer, the series Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff continues today by looking at the life and career of the best player in franchise history to don the number 23, returner extraordinaire Devin Hester.
Devin Hester becomes top college athlete before joining Chicago Bears
Hailing originally from Riviera Beach, Florida, Devin Hester had serious hardships before his football career began. When Hester was just 10 years old, his mother, Juanita, was involved in a near-fatal car accident, leaving her paralyzed and bedridden for an extended period. Just two years later, Hester's father, Lenorris Sr., tragically passed away at just 33 years old.
Hester's early life was sadly filled with tragedy, but he found a productive outlet for his feelings; football. Alongside his step-father and brother Lenorris Jr., who is just a year older than Devin, the future Bear became heavily interested in the sport, and eventually began his career at Riviera Beach Suncoast High School, where he quickly became a dominant player in all three aspects of the game.
As a high schooler, Hester's best season came unsurprisingly as a senior. Nicknamed "Sweet Feet" by his high school teammates, Hester's insane speed and agility saw him take the field as a receiver and running back on offense, a cornerback on defense, and a return specialist on special teams. On offense, Hester ended his senior campaign with over 2,000 total yards and 26 touchdowns, including throwing for five scores. Defensively, Hester had recorded an impressive 156 tackles and three sacks.
Following his final season and his high school graduation, Hester was one of the premier recruits of his class. With a 4.33 second 40-yard dash, he was ranked as high as the number-one recruit in Florida and as high as the sixth-best recruit in the nation. After receiving offers from all over the country, Hester elected to accept a scholarship to attend the nearby University of Miami, selecting the Hurricanes over the likes of George, Florida State, and North Carolina State.
Unfortunately, due to low standardized testing scores, Hester was ineligible to play his first season. With encouragement from his mother and coaches, Hester was able to retake the test and passed, allowing him to join the team ahead of the 2003 season, where he served almost exclusively as a kick returner.
On a team that included several NFL players including Sean Taylor, Frank Gore, and Antrel Rolle, Hester contributed 517 yards and a touchdown on kickoffs alongside 142 offensive yards on eight total touchdowns. His 28.7 yards per kickoff return ranked sixth nationally and helped the Hurricanes post an 11-2 record en route to qualifying for the Orange Bowl. In the team's postseason win against in-state rival Florida State, Hester posted 63 yards on three kickoff returns.
By his second year, Hester became an integral part of the Miami football team and contributed in every phase of the game. Playing in all 12 games, Hester made three starts in the defensive secondary, two starts in the offensive backfield, and was the team's main returner on both punts and kickoffs.
His breakout season saw him lead the team with four interceptions, record a touchdown and 65 yards on just six offensive touchdowns, and accumulate an impressive four touchdowns and over 700 yards on punts and kickoffs. Hester became known as one of the game's most dangerous players with the ball in his hands and was rewarded with an All-Conference nomination.
In 2005, Hester backed up his reputation as an anytime touchdown scorer, leading to his nickname "Anytime", and again played in all three phases of the game. While teams tried their best to avoid kicking the ball to the Florida native, Hester still had over 400 yards and a touchdown as a returner. He also recorded nearly 150 total offensive yards, an interception that was accompanied by a 30-yard return, and 11 total touchdowns.
Following his third season, Hester elected to enter the 2006 NFL Draft, partly based on the advice of his friend and mentor Deion Sanders, whom Hester grew up idolizing. Hester was approached by Sanders through former Hurricane and Sanders' teammate Ed Reed, who put the two in contact. From there, Sanders was a mentor and friend of Hester and helped him through a number of life decisions.
Nonetheless, Hester entered the draft and despite being listed technically as a cornerback, teams knew that Hester's explosiveness as a ball carrier would be his greatest asset as a pro. The Chicago Bears elected to take him with the 57th overall pick during the second round, just 15 picks after adding another defensive back with their first pick in Danieal Manning.