Many happy returns again for Bears' Hester
Never mind the burnt orange-on-navy throwback jerseys.
Devin Hester went back in time Sunday. He didn't require a vintage-looking uniform, DeLorean, nor Dave Toub scheme. The 30-year-old needed only fresh legs, apparently, and maybe a heavy football.
Ol' jersey No. 23 displayed flashes of old No. 23 during the Bears' 31-30 victory over Minnesota at soggy Soldier Field, finding seams on kickoffs, zigging, zagging, sprinting straight ahead north and speeding down sidelines.
Only another kick returned for a touchdown eluded him, but the 249 return yards he piled up were the most ever for a Bear in a single game. Hester owned the previous club mark with 225 yards at St. Louis in 2006.
"I was just happy they kicked it to me," said the NFL's record holder for combined kickoff/punt return touchdowns with 17. Four of his TDs have come against Minnesota.
"Whenever you get an opportunity to get your hands on the ball, and it's a nice kick to bring it out, it gives me an opportunity to make plays."
Hester wasn't the only kick returner to make a splash on the wet grass. Minnesota rookie Cordarrelle Patterson fielded Robbie Gould's game-opening boot in the middle of the end zone, raced out, eluded a diving Gould at the 31 and sped untouched down the sideline en route to 105-yard return for TD.
The kicker was kicking himself for allowing the play to develop.
"I have to do a better job," Gould said. "I didn't give the guys a good enough kick to cover. I put it in the middle of the field with really bad hang time. That one's on me.
"I don't know if I got a hand on him," Gould added of Patterson. "I just tried to dive and get his shoelaces. If I do a better job of kicking the ball, then we're not in that situation."
Hester made a bad situation for the Bears better, following up Patterson's TD with a 76-yard return to the Vikings' 32. Five plays later Jay Cutler's 1-yard TD toss to Martellus Bennett had the Bears even.
Patterson's touchdown only fueled Hester.
"Man, it (ticked) me off," Hester said. "To have someone come in our home turf and take one to the house, that really (ticked) me off. Before the (ensuing) kickoff, I was just like, 'I don't care how deep this guy (Vikings kicker Blair Walsh) kicks it, I'm bringing it out.'"
"It was huge," Cutler said. "He was there all day long."
After starting 46 times at wide receiver in the previous five seasons, Hester is listed strictly as a kick/punt returner. The eighth-year pro is running less at practice, he says, saving his legs for game day.
"My legs are fresh the whole game compared to playing 50-60 snaps on offense," Hester said. "Every time I'm out there, I'm fresh and ready to go."
Returns around the league are fewer since kickoffs now take place at the 35-yard line. Sunday's rain, however, was an equalizer.
Hester also had kick returns of 80, 31 and 42 yards. Minnesota's Josh Robinson pushed Hester out of bounds on the 80-yard return in the second quarter, likely denying Hester his first kickoff-return TD since 2011.
"I think the weather had a lot to do with what happened today," Hester said. "It was a rainy day and the ball was a little heavy, so it kind of prevented a lot of touchbacks."
Who knows, maybe Bears opponent will start kicking away from Hester again. After Minnesota padded its lead to 30-24 with 3:15 left in the fourth, Walsh blooped the ensuing kickoff, which Joe Anderson grabbed at the Bears' 20 and returned 14 yards.
Ten snaps later, the Bears, thanks to special-teams help, had pulled off a special win, rallying in the fourth quarter for the second week in a row.
"It was a great team effort," Hester said. "We knew we were due to have a good game returning kicks."
Ol' No. 23 was due, too.
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