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Why Devin Hester must be first-ballot Hall of Famer

Devin Hester has spent most of 2017 out of the NFL and effectively retired. But on Tuesday, the greatest return man in league history made it official.

That last note is appropriate. Because when the Hall of Fame Class of 2022 gathers in Canton, Hester should absolutely be a member.

During his NFL career, Hester returned 19 kicks or punts or touchdowns — by far the NFL record. That doesn’t even include what he did in the postseason, or returning a missed field goal 108 yards.

Hester wasn’t simply a good, or even great return man. He was a game-changer. He was a guy teams stayed away from. When they didn’t, the paid and paid dearly.

Truthfully, we hope that this just ends up being a straw man argument. But looking at the evidence, we have reason to doubt that it will be. Really, it has nothing to do with how great Hester was at his job. No, the problem is that, generally speaking, Hall of Fame voters have not shown a lot of respect towards that job.

Special teams players have historically not been welcomed into Canton with open arms. Rod Woodson has more kick return yards than anyone in the Hall of Fame. Yet, 36 unenshrined players have more kick return yards than the great defensive back. The punt return stats only are a little better. Tim Brown has more punt return yards than any Hall of Famer, and he’s sixth all time. But only three other players in the top-36 (Woodson, Emlen Tunnell, and Deion Sanders) are enshrined in Canton. None of them are in Canton because of their special teams prowess.

Additionally, this isn’t a problem unique to return men. Morten Andersen and Jan Stenerud are the only primary kickers in the Hall of Fame, while Ray Guy is the only punter.

While Hester did play some as a defensive back and receiver, neither amounted to anything more than a cameo in his career. He was primarily a return man. Clearly, voters have a bias against them. But if we really think about it, those biases are ridiculous.

Jerry Rice didn’t do anything other than what was asked of him as a receiver. Excluding the occasional trick play, he never ran or threw the ball. He never returned kicks or punts. He never played defense. No, Rice caught passes and blocked — the jobs of a receiver. He did those jobs better than anyone in NFL history.

On the other side of the ball, we have Joe Greene. Greene sacked quarterbacks, stopped running backs, and ate up blockers so his linebackers could roam freely behind him. But he never went out wide to cover the likes of Fred Biletnikoff or Cliff Branch. He never jumped on the offensive line to block for Franco Harris or Terry Bradshaw. He simply played defensive tackle. Like Rice, he did that better than anyone.

Rice and Greene are both rightfully in the Hall of Fame. There was no doubt about either man being worthy of a spot in Canton, nor should there have been. Both were the greatest at their respective positions.

That’s what Hester was.

Football used to be a game for jacks of all trades. Players frequently played offense and defense. Kicking roles were given to the likes of Lou Groza and George Blanda, who played other positions. But as we got into the later half of the 20th Century and beyond, the game became more specialized. Generally, the voters have adapted well to this (see the previous examples).

But when it comes to special teams players, there seems to be a block. For the record, this isn’t a problem unique to football. Baseball Hall of Fame voters have the same issues with designated hitters and really, it’s a similar issue. Designated hitters only hit. They don’t field. But being one dimensional has never kept a pitcher out of the Hall of Fame. Just like being a specialist has never kept a great quarterback, receiver, running back, offensive lineman, tight end, defensive lineman, linebacker or defensive back out of the Hall of Fame.

The greatest all-time players at essentially every position are honored with spots in Canton. But kickers, punters, and return men, are victims of the same illogical block as designated hitters.

If the argument is that special teams players don’t impact the game as much as a great offensive or defensive player, okay. But try telling that to Mike Shanahan.

In 2007, Shanahan’s Denver Broncos lost to Hester’s Chicago Bears 37-34 in overtime. The Bears won that game despite being outgained by 137 yards and committing the same number of penalties for more yards than the Broncos. Chicago did have Devin Hester, who returned a kick and a punt for a score. Without the greatest return man in the history of the game, the Bears lose that game and lose it convincingly. If that’s not impacting a game, what is?

Hester is a Hall of Fame-caliber player. But we don’t only want to see him inducted on the first ballot for that reason. We also hope that his potential induction will open doors for other great special teams players who, thus far, are woefully underrepresented in Canton.

The Hall of Fame is filled with specialists on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. It’s time to more adequately honor the third phase of football in Canton.