FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Devin Hester doesn’t follow the Bears’ search for their next kick returner.
‘‘All I hear is them trying to compare whoever’s back there with me,’’ he said.
Filling the shoes of perhaps the best returner in NFL history might not fair to Chris Williams, Eric Weems and the others. But Hester, sitting in the end zone at Atlanta Falcons camp Saturday, didn’t seem sympathetic.
‘‘I just look at it as a compliment,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s like any kid growing up playing basketball. They want to be the next Michael Jordan.’’
Hester, another famous No. 23, said he signed a three-year, $9 million deal with the Falcons in March only after it became the clear the Bears didn’t want him back. He wanted to retire with the Bears — ‘‘because of the things that happened there, that I accomplished as an individual and we did as a team,’’ he said — but was met with reality, like others before him.
‘‘It’s not like I had a choice to sign with them again,’’ he said. ‘‘They didn’t even call me to let me know they were willing to bring me back. I didn’t hear from them at all. It made it a lot easier for me to say, ‘OK,’ and then go look for another team.’’
Hester narrowed his choices to three teams: Lovie Smith’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Arizona Cardinals and the Falcons. When the Falcons heard he planned to visit Arizona, they suggested Hester fly his wife and two young children to Atlanta.
‘‘You want to go to the team that shows the most interest because those are the ones that really want you,’’ he said.
Not that it has been easy. Hester found a home near the Falcons’ practice facility but needs GPS to go almost every-where else. He rode to the team’s preseason opener Friday with running back Antone Smith, who had to show him the way to the home locker room at the Georgia Dome.
Hester wore No. 17 — his and his younger son’s birthdates subtracted from his wife’s and older son’s birthdates — and asked the Falcons to play the same Rick Ross tune the Bears did before his returns.
He lined up at receiver, too — Hester wants to play 10 or 12 snaps there per game — after a year of being exclusively a returner with the Bears.
The night was strange.
‘‘It’s a learning process,’’ Hester said. ‘‘Like starting all over again.’’
His career doesn’t need a rewrite. Hester’s 13 punt
returns for touchdowns are the most of all time, and his combined 19 return touchdowns — including on five kickoffs and one on a missed field goal — are tied with Deion Sanders for the most in history.
When punter Ray Guy entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the odds of Hester being awarded a gold jacket improved.
‘‘When you talk about the Hall of Fame, you really don’t talk about special teams,’’ Hester said. ‘‘You talk running back, linebacker, receiver, quarterback kind of guys. The first time a special-teams guy made the Hall of Fame — he just opened up the window for everyone else.’’
Hester said he thinks he
belongs in the Hall ‘‘once my
career is said and done’’ and said he doesn’t have to prove anything else.
‘‘I pretty much have all the return records,’’ he said.
If that Hall of Fame day comes, he’ll go in as a member of the Bears, the team the Falcons will host Oct. 12 and the team he might return to, even if only ceremonially, to retire.
‘‘We’ll see how we’re feeling, if both parties can come up with an agreement,’’ Hester said. ‘‘Who knows? Maybe so.’’