Brian Mitchell, the most prolific return specialist in NFL history, marvels at the magical moves of Devin Hester.
“Every time I see him, it’s like, ‘Damn,’ ” Mitchell told the Sun-Times. “He’s jaw-dropping.”
On Dec. 20, 2010, in Minneapolis, Hester passed Mitchell for most combined kick return touchdowns with his 14th against the Minnesota Vikings on “Monday Night Football.” This season, Hester has tacked on three more, prompting a popular question: Does he belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Many believe Mitchell has a strong case, and the three-time All-Pro selection says he and other return specialists, such as Mel Gray and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, deserve a football player’s greatest individual honor.
But Hester rises above that distinguished pack.
“Ultimately, when he gets the ball in his hands, he’s much better than I was,” said Mitchell, who still owns several NFL records, including most combined kickoff and punt return yards with 19,013. “When you look at Deion [Sanders] and Devin and Gale Sayers and Mel Gray and myself, all of us had a different style.
“But at this point, he is the guy. He’s done it, and he’s shown it.”
Those who determine that aren’t convinced — not yet, anyway.
Of the current 44 Hall of Fame voters, 26 of them responded and one declined an interview request from the Sun-Times about Hester. Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was the only voter reached by the Sun-Times to say he doesn’t believe specialists should be in the Hall of Fame.
“If we recognize a player solely based on his specialty, then where do we draw the line? The best long-snapper of all time? The best coverage linebacker? The best short-yardage blocker?” Grossi said in an e-mail. “I would not elect Hester based exclusively on his returns record. He’s a spectacular touchdown-maker in that role, but I just think a Hall of Famer needs to be a complete football player.”
The remainder of the voters were open-minded to players whose merits were primarily as a specialist, even though Jan Stenerud is the only one in the Hall of Fame. Several others — including Lou Groza, former Bears running back Gale Sayers and perennial All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders — distinguished themselves at offensive and defensive positions, as well as on special teams.
But ESPN NFL analyst John Clayton represented the opinion of many of his peers.
“It’s hard for just a special teams player to make it because they have to beat out every-down players who may have six or seven trips to the Pro Bowl,” Clayton said in an e-mail. “The current backlog would make it tougher.”
Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, respected throughout the NFL for his annual special-teams rankings, suggested that Hester may need at least 20 return touchdowns to ensure his induction.
“If you’re a specialist,” Gosselin said, “you have to put numbers that are out of the ballpark.”
Several voters lamented that Ray Guy, a six-time All-Pro who was the only punter ever taken in the first round, hasn’t been immortalized yet. Others even mentioned Mitchell and former Northwestern receiver and special teams ace Steve Tasker as worthy Hall of Fame specialists.
Len Pasquarelli of the Sports Xchange said the voters will be challenged next year on the topic, because he will be “actively supporting” kicker Morten Andersen, the NFL’s all-time leading scorer.
“I hope the selectors keep an open mind about specialists,” Pasquarelli said in an e-mail.
As for whether Hester has already done enough to get into the Hall of Fame, nearly all the voters insisted they would not decide until his career is over.
“One of the best parts of Hall of Fame deliberation is the fact that you have to wait until the end of a man’s career, and then wait an five additional years,” Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King said. “Then, you can let his accomplishments sink in and consider them without emotion.”
Hester, though, has already earned two votes, from Bob Glauber of Newsday and Gary Myers of the New York Daily News.
“I would most likely vote in favor of putting Hester into the Hall of Fame,” Glauber of Newsday said in an e-mail. “The idea is to select transcendent players, and Hester is the best of all-time in his role.”
Bob Gretz, who is Kansas City’s representative, and Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune also don’t need much convincing, although both stopped short of committing a vote to him.
“It would depend who’s on the ballot when he comes up,” Canepa said. “But, yes, I definitely would consider him and more than likely vote for him. He’s unique in the history of football.”
After practicing Thursday, Hester said he — like many players — dreamed of being in the Hall.
“Every NFL player, at the end of their career, would hope to get an opportunity to be in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “That would be the ultimate icing on the cake.”
Hester suggested that his enshrinement should be a given.
“If you get a guy — in the situation that I’m in — it would be unfair for him to not make the Hall of Fame, to go out and break every record that has to do with returns,” Hester said. “He should be in the Hall of Fame.”
The 29-year-old, though, is far from finished.
“Our special-teams unit wants to add to our legacy,” Hester said.Click here to order Devin Hester’s proCane Rookie Card.