BOURBONNAIS, IL. - The sheer coordination of so many humans is part of what makes an NFL practice such a sight to behold. The linemen are hitting, the wide receivers are running routes, the quarterbacks are fine-tuning their footwork. Within a matter of minutes, a whistle blows and everything changes.
The practice fields on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University are a busy place, particularly on Thursday afternoon. There is a crew of referees here for the first time at training camp, and that means one thing: the Chicago Bears are ready to run 11-on-11 scrimmages with the first preseason game looming just a week away.
After the positional groups go through their morning drill routines, the Bears get right into it. Charles Tillman jams Brandon Marshall at the line, Jay Cutler overthrows a receiver, Julius Peppers smokes the unfortunate soul tasked with blocking him. It feels like football again, and every player, coach and fan in small town Bourbonnais, Ill. is transfixed on the action.
Off in the distance, Devin Hester is on his own practice field. Punter Adam Podlesh and a few assistant coaches are his only company. There's something that resembles real football going on not far away, but for the first time in his eight seasons, Hester has no part of it. He's just a kick returner now, and that means being off in his own world. Hester would never say he feels lonely at practice, but you couldn't blame him if he did.
Hester might seem like a relic at this point, but the thousands in attendance at Bears camp still remember the glory days. As practice ends, with the rest of the team still going through 11-on-11 walkthroughs and Hester still fielding punts by himself, the fans start shouting his name. Always jovial, Hester obliges with pictures and autographs for a horde of people.
When he's finished, I approached him wondering if I could ask the greatest return man in NFL history a few questions.
"Yeah, let's go."
Devin Hester takes off running and he expects me to chase after him.
* * *
"I was pushing for it," Hester says of becoming a full-time special teams player after six underwhelming seasons as a wide receiver, and one as a cornerback. "I was telling them that I wanted to find a new rhythm. We came to an agreement and it was finalized."
In the immediate wake of the firing of Lovie Smith, the only head coach he's ever known as a pro, Hester said he wasn't sure if he wanted to play anymore. Smith was a fine coach whom the veterans all respected deeply, but even after a 10-win season it felt like it was time for a change. The Bears needed a new mind, a new voice, and that breath of fresh air will be welcomed by Hester as much as anyone.
Smith's Bears were always a poor offensive team, and the struggles of Hester at wide receiver became of symbol of their failure. Smith made Hester a receiver after his rookie season, and in a vacuum, it made sense: Hester might have been the most explosive player in the league when he got his hands on the ball, so it made sense to get him the ball as much as possible.
The coaching staff did Hester a disservice immediately by saying he could develop into a No. 1 wideout. They mentioned the Carolina Panthers' Steve Smith as a comparison. That was an issue for someone who had never played receiver in his life, save for a few one-off plays in high school. Hester was in over his head, and it showed quickly.
Jay Cutler's frustration with Hester was often worn directly on his face when the two failed to get on the same page during a game, miscues that often led to turnovers or blown opportunities for big plays. It's not like Hester was without some success as a receiver, though. His second career reception was an 81-yard bomb from Brian Griese against the Minnesota Vikings. He caught 57 passes for 757 yards during Cutler's first season in town in 2009.
The problem was that Hester was never able to eliminate the mistakes, never able to become a well-rounded pass catcher. By last season, the big plays were becoming few and far between, and his kick returning ability might have suffered because of it.
The man who holds the record for the most return touchdowns in league history didn't take a kick to the house all season a year ago. Now that his mind is clear of having to remember a thick offensive playbook, Hester thinks he can hit his stride again in the return game.
"I like it a lot," Hester said of his new role. "My legs will be fresh, that's a key thing. The guys that are explosive, their legs are fresh. That's what keeps you dangerous."
Hester would know, because it wasn't long ago when he was the most dangerous player in the NFL.
* * *
Hester returned a punt for a touchdown at Lambeau Field against the Packers in his first NFL game, and it was the start of a brilliant beginning to his career. Five weeks later, the still undefeated Bears were in Arizona to play the Cardinals. The offense turned the ball over six times and scored a total of three points. But after Mike Brown and Charles Tillman each returned a fumble for a touchdown to make it a one-score game, it was Hester time.
With under three minutes remaining, Hester took a punt 83 yards for a touchdown to give the Bears an absurd 24-23 victory.
Three games later, the Bears were in New York. The Giants' Jay Feeley attempted a 52-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that fell woefully short, dropping into the waiting arms of Hester at the back of the end zone. After a brief hesitation, he was gone. Hester had the longest return in NFL history 108 yards later.
And then there was the Super Bowl XLI moment that will never be forgotten. Announcer Jim Nantz had just finished saying the Indianapolis Colts had trouble covering kicks all season when the ball was in the air to begin the game. Hester fielded the ball at the 10-yard line, made two cuts and was off to the races. Just like that, Hester had returned the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl for a touchdown. Of course he did.
Hester would take six kicks for touchdowns his second season before momentarily losing his magic. Hester didn't get in the end zone his third or fourth seasons, maybe because of the added work at receiver, maybe because of a change in shoes. But Hester recaptured what made him special by taking three kicks for touchdowns in 2010 and again in 2011 before being shut out last year.
Now 30 years old, Hester is focused on not letting that drought extend. Dave Toub, the special teams coach who contributed to so much of his success, has gone to Kansas City, but Hester likes what he sees under new coach Joe DeCamillis.
"It's a little different, matchup-wise," Hester said. "[The blocking scheme] is pretty much big man on big man. In previous years, we tried to scheme certain guys. This year, it's big body on big body and little body on little body."
"I'm just trying to get back to being the most explosive special teamer in the NFL, kickoff coverage and kickoff return-wise. Just trying to be one of the top ones in the league."
Hester may exist in his own world at training camp, but it feels fitting in a way. This has always been a franchise defined by unbreakable defenses and a power running game. Hester flipped that tradition on its head one return at a time. Really, there's never been anyone on the same playing field.