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The two men were sitting together. One had just moved past the other for a place in the NFL record book. And neither could hide what they were feeling.
Devin Hester and Deion Sanders. Student and mentor. Hall of Famer and a player who might join him in Canton.
They were sharing an NFL Network stage inside the Georgia Dome ("MY house," Deion famously called it 20 years ago). Sanders was in the center of that stage as Hester, to his left, talked about a memorable play in a forgettable game.
As the panel's interview went on, Sanders could no longer hold back.
"I love you as a man, as a father, as a husband," Sanders told Hester, fighting tears. "I remember the beginning, man. I love you, dude. I'm so proud of you. You know that."
Sanders put his hand on Hester's shoulder, and Hester, too, became emotional. Heck, everyone on the set probably felt a catch in his throat. Hester then told the story of the first time Sanders called him, when Hester was at Miami. He finished it by telling Sanders that he appreciated everything that Sanders has done for him. Sanders pulled Hester toward him, and the tears again came to the surface.
Like that, a genuine primetime (and Prime Time) moment.
Hester set it in motion a couple hours earlier when he sped and weaved and high-stepped his way through the Bucs' punt coverage team for career return touchdown No. 20, one more than Sanders. It was a 56-yard work of art in a sloppy game that ended Atlanta 56, Tampa Bay 14. Hester hid his head in a towel after he returned to the Falcons' bench.
Sanders wasn't shocked that he witnessed history. Heck, he called it before the game. And Hester was determined to make it happen.
"I told you I was going to do it, man," Hester told Sanders on the postgame show.
"I'm gonna say it: I wasn't happy the last three, four years in Chicago, because things weren't going the way I expected," he said. "(I would) always have a great camp, have all the elder receivers and coaches saying I had the best camp, and then once the season started I'm not there."
Hester had just one catch Thursday, for 25 yards. He has seven receptions on the season. Still, he had nice things to say about the Falcons' offense. "I've got a quarterback (Matt Ryan) now (who) loves ... even the walk-ons, and coaches that know how to get the ball to me," he said.
It was that kind of night for Hester. Besides setting the record in front of Deion, his new team had just embarrassed an opponent that was being coached by one of his former bosses, Lovie Smith.
Everything had lined up just right, just like the blocking on a return that goes to the house. Everything felt just right.
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