Deion Sanders: It would be ‘absurd’ if Devin Hester isn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer

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(Audacy) Bears legend Devin Hester is one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2022, joining former Texans receiver Andre Johnson and former Cowboys outsider linebacker DeMarcus Ware as one of just three players eligible for the first time.

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Hester’s Hall of Fame candidacy is unusual in that he was a return specialist, having failed to distinguish himself as a traditional player on either offense as a receiver or defense as a cornerback. Hester was essentially a one-trick pony, but you could argue he was better at his one trick — his 20 total return touchdowns are an NFL record — than any player in history. The only reason Hester didn't have more return touchdowns is because teams eventually stopped kicking to him, the NFL equivalent of the Barry Bonds treatment.

Similar niche talents have had a hard time cracking Canton, as only four kickers and one punter are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Hester may not check the usual boxes, but that doesn't affect his Hall of Fame case according to the legendary Deion Sanders, who served as a mentor to Hester throughout his career and is now the Jackson State University head coach.

“It would be absurd if he’s not a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” Sanders said of Hester. “There’s no man that was feared more than Devin Hester with a ball in his hands on special teams. And that’s coming from me.”

Sanders was also a decorated return man, taking it to the house nine times (six punt and three kickoff return touchdowns) over 14 NFL seasons spent with Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington and Baltimore. In many respects, Hester was the last of his kind, a relic of a bygone time when return specialists actually had a chance to impact games. To avoid dangerous collisions that could lead to concussions and other long-term injuries, the NFL has largely done away with kickoff returns (most kickoffs now are booted out of the end zone for a touchback), making it easy to envision a future without them.

Hester and other Hall of Fame finalists will learn their fates Thursday, when the NFL announces its new class heading to Canton. Even if his name isn't called on the first ballot, Hester should earn Hall of Fame honors eventually.

However, Hester has admitted that getting in on the first ballot is important to him, an honor that would leave no doubt about his place in NFL history.

“First-ballot Hall of Famers are Hall of Famers that you have no question that they should be a Hall of Famer,” Hester told Mitch Goldich of Sports Illustrated. “You think about the best of the best — best quarterbacks, best running backs, best receivers. I know we don’t have any (full-time) returners in the Hall of Fame, but I did things that have never been done before.”

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