By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
The release of return specialist Devin Hester for the second time in five months probably means the end of his career. So now what? Well, now people will tell you he's a slam dunk for the Pro Football Hall of Fame … and that’s great.
Except he's not.
Nope, there are few dead-bolt cinches beyond the Unitases, Montanas, Lotts, Elways, Paytons and Rices. I know, we've had 15 first-ballot choices the past 10 years, including three in 2013 (Larry Allen, Jonathan Ogden and Warren Sapp), so it happens. But there's a bigger, more complicated issue that makes Hester no sure thing … and that’s where he starred.
I'm not talking about Chicago, Atlanta or Baltimore. I'm talking about special teams. It’s the surest way NOT to get to Canton.
In the 53 years of the Pro Football Hall of Fame only two specialists have been inducted – kicker Jan Stenerud and punter Ray Guy – and there was only one the first 50 years, with Guy chosen in 2015 on his eighth, and presumably last, try as a finalist.
Then there's this: The NFL's all-time leading scorer is kicker Morten Andersen with 2,544 points – or 110 more than anyone in league history and 187 ahead of Adam Vinatieri. Andersen is not in the Hall of Fame, and, yes, that’s a problem. Because every major professional sport – baseball, hockey, basketball, you name it – includes its leading scorer in its Hall.
But the NFL? Sorry, wrong number. And the reason is special teams. Hall-of-Fame voters never warmed up to them, and that’s more than a shame. It's downright wrong.
Former return specialist Brian Mitchell gained more all-purpose yards (23,316) than everyone in NFL history but Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice, and he's not in. Worse, he's never been a finalist or semifinalist.
Former Buffalo special teams ace Steve Tasker was a seven-time All-Pro, seven-time Pro Bowler, four-time Super Bowl participant and Pro Bowl MVP. He hasn’t been a Hall-of-Fame finalist, either.
There's only one player on the league's 75th anniversary team not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and ... surprise, surprise ... it's none other than return specialist Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, named to two all-decade teams. Like Mitchell and Tasker, Johnson has never been a Hall-of-Fame finalist.
Should they be considered for Canton? Absolutely. But they can't until they become one of 15 finalists, and good luck there.
Look, there is no question Devin Hester is Hall-of-Fame worthy. Drafted as a cornerback, he made his impact as a return specialist, setting the NFL record for most return touchdowns (punts and kicks) and most touchdowns by punt returns. In his rookie season, he returned six punts and kicks for touchdowns, including a 108-yarder vs. the Giants, to help the Chicago Bears reach their first Super Bowl since 1985. Then, on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI, he went the distance – the first time in the game's history an opening kickoff was returned for a score.
In short, he was a lethal weapon, reflected by his finish in that year's AP All-Pro team. He finished fourth in the voting behind LaDainian Tomlinson, Champ Bailey and Jason Taylor. All are Hall of Famers waiting to happen. But Hester? He's nothing more than someone in the conversation.
But if we can't get a conversation started on Mitchell, Tasker or Johnson … if we can't get Andersen to Canton … if it took eight votes and nearly 30 years to put the best punter in history into the Hall … why should Hester be considered a Hall-of-Fame certainty?
Answer: He can't. Not until or unless the Hall's voters are more receptive to a position … to a unit … that deserves more than it has gotten from Canton.
(Devin Hester photo courtesy of Atlanta Falcons)
(Hall of Fame photos courtesy of Talk of Fame Network)