The Bears and Devin Hester have now officially said goodbye to each other.
After an eight-year career in which he became the greatest return specialist in NFL history, Hester and the Bears are parting ways. Hester said his goodbyes Wednesday night via Facebook, and the Bears responded 14 hours later with a news release Thursday morning stating Hester would not be re-signed.
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"For the past eight seasons we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization," Bears general manager Phil Emery said in the statement. "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.
"Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person. He is a great teammate, husband and father. Devin represented the organization off the field as well as he did on it. When his career is over, he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family. We thank him for his dedication and wish him and his family all the best."
Hester is the NFL's all-time leader in punt-return touchdowns (13) and total kick return-touchdowns (18). Including his 108-yard missed field-goal-return touchdown, Hester's 19 overall return touchdowns are tied with Hall of Famer Deion Sanders for the most in NFL history.
Hester also had a 92-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff in Super Bowl XLI. His 20 overall return touchdowns, including the postseason, are the most in NFL history.
But Hester's demise began before the 2013 season when it was decided he would no longer play wide receiver after three straight years of declining productivity at that position following a 57-catch, 757-yard season in 2009.
Relegated solely to special teams, Hester averaged 14.2 yards on punt returns last season, which would have been third best in the league but were 2 attempts short of the 20 needed to qualify. He was sixth in the league with a 27.6-yard kickoff-return average.
The Bears decided that wasn't enough to justify his 2013 salary of $1.857 million, and he reportedly did not receiver any offers from the Bears.
So Hester will become an unrestricted free agent at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, and there is speculation that he could reunite with former Bears coach Lovie Smith, who is now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach.
Hester is a Florida native who played at Miami before he was drafted in the second round by the Bears in 2006. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection, including his first two seasons when he scored an unprecedented 11 return touchdowns, including 7 on punt returns. In his last Pro Bowl season (2010), Hester scored three times on punt returns, and the following year he scored three more return TDs, 2 on punts and 1 on a kickoff.
Wednesday night, on his Facebook page, Hester wrote: "To all my Chicago people ... I can't thank you all enough for my time in Chicago. I've always said I wanted to retire a Chicago Bear but sometimes things don't work out the way we would like. Chicago will always hold a special place in my heart and if I am fortunate enough to break the return record, we will have all broken it together ... no matter where I am. Thank you again and God Bless."
Hester's final touchdown as a Bears player was last Oct. 20, an 81-yard punt return against Washington. In Week Two, he established the franchise record with 249 kickoff-return yards vs. the Minnesota Vikings.
Hester's 3,241 punt return yards are eighth most in NFL history and his 12.3-yard punt-return average is fifth. He is the Bears' all-time leader in punt-return yards, kickoff-return yards (5,504), total kick-return yards (8,745) and second in all-purpose yards (11,632). Hester's 2,807 receiving yards are 18th most in Bears annals and his 217 receptions are 14th.
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