Jubilant and still emotional after high-stepping into league history Thursday night on a 56-yard punt return to collect his NFL-record 20th career return touchdown, former Chicago Bears return man Devin Hester admitted to feeling unhappy about his role in the final years of his tenure with the club that drafted him.
Hester played receiver for six years of his eight-year tenure in Chicago, but spent his final season (2013) working exclusively as a return man.
Now with the Atlanta Falcons, Hester scored on the return Thursday night as well as a 20-yard run in the first half of his team’s 56-14 shellacking of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by former Bears coach Lovie Smith.
“I’m gonna say it, man. I wasn’t happy the last three or four years in Chicago,” Hester said during the postgame show on NFL Network’s Total Access. “Things weren’t going the way I expected. I would always have a great camp; have all the receivers saying and all the coaches saying I had the best camp out of all the receivers. And then, once the season starts off, I’m not there.”
Hester didn’t elaborate, but sources have said he didn’t want to play receiver for the Bears in 2013.
Hester spent eight seasons with the Bears (2006-13) and participated in 123 games, racking up 11,632 all-purpose yards. The veteran spent parts of his career playing defensive back and receiver with the team. But last season, the Bears coaching staff and Hester mutually agreed he’d concentrate solely on duties as a return man.
Hester caught a career-high 57 passes for 757 yards and three touchdowns in 2009, quarterback Jay Cutler's first season with the team. But Hester and Cutler never clicked. Hester finished with 2,908 yards and 14 touchdowns, but caught just 23 passes in 2012, his final season playing receiver for the Bears.
“I’ve got a quarterback now that ... he loves even the walk-ons,” Hester said, “and coaches that know how to get the ball to me; how to make plays for me. I’m excited for this season, man. This is only the beginning for our team. It’s a team that knows how to utilize their talent. Everybody’s making plays, and we’ve got a team that, if you’re good at running this route, we don’t care if you’ve been a starter for 12 years. If this guy is two years in the league and he’s good at this route, we’re gonna let him run this route.”
A three-time Pro Bowler (2006, 2007 and 2010), Hester was named to the 2000s All-Decade team by The Associated Press and ESPN. He was the rookie recipient of the team's 2006 Brian Piccolo Award, which is elected by Bears players for teammates they feel best exemplify the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor of the late Piccolo.
But the team informed Hester in March he wouldn’t be returning for a ninth season in Chicago.
“For the past eight seasons, we have been honored to have Devin Hester as part of our organization,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said at the time. “While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers.”
The Chicago Bears organization and former teammates showered Hester with praise and congratulatory words on Twitter after he broke Deion Sanders' record for return TDs.
Hester admitted that when he left Chicago, he was no longer the player he used to be. Still, he's plenty dangerous based off the performance against the Buccaneers.
"You hear rumors about, 'Man, he lost it.' You know, I lost it a little bit. I used to run a 4.2[-second 40-yard dash], but now I run 4.3," Hester joked. "I ain't gonna lie, I've lost it a little bit. But I've still got that hunger. As the years have grown, I've learned the game. I understand the game. I know what I'm capable of doing, and I know how to utilize and rally my troops. Those guys, I'm proud of them my blockers, because those guys wanted it just as badly as I did."