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Lovie Smith Reflects On Devin Hester's Career: 'First-Ballot Hall Of Fame'

By Chris Emma--

(CBS) A state of shock and sadness struck Devin Hester the day his father figure of a head coach was fired by the Bears.

Hester tried to fight back tears on that last day of 2012. He couldn't hold it in. His bond with Lovie Smith was so close, and he couldn't imagine playing for another head coach. Hester said he was considering retirement.

Ultimately, Hester chose to stay in the NFL and played parts of four more seasons. Now, he intends to retire, he said after a two-game stint with the Seahawks in these playoffs.

That relationship with Smith remains just as strong, four years after he last coached Hester.

"Devin is a part of my life forever," Smith said Friday by phone. "I love him to death as a man. You can't meet a better person."

Smith and Hester have gone their separate ways since the end of that 2012 season and Smith's nine-year run as Bears head coach. Hester played the 2013 season with Marc Trestman's Bears, then played for the Falcons for two seasons and finished in 2016 with the Ravens and Seahawks.

If this is indeed the end for Hester, who has yet to formally file his retirement papers, he finishes with 20 return touchdowns, including 14 punt return touchdowns -- both NFL records that will be tough to top. Smith's favorite return of Hester's was the punt return for a touchdown in the 2006 comeback win over the Cardinals, the go-ahead score in a 24-23 victory.

Hester earned his place as the greatest return man in NFL history. Now begins consideration to whether he is deserving of the Hall of Fame. Smith is certainly decided.

"Absolutely," Smith emphatically said. "Whenever you say that somebody is the best at a position in the NFL, when you say they're the best, the greatest of all time, he should be in the Hall of Fame. For me, he should be first ballot in the Hall of Fame."

Smith recalls his first visit with Hester when he was a standout at Miami. Smith saw an extraordinary talent whom some didn't hold high hopes for in the NFL. Hester's lack of a true position coming out to college made his selection a risk.

The Bears had no hesitations with Hester, taking him in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft.

"You could predict some greatness there," Smith said.

Greatness indeed followed for Hester. As a rookie in 2006, he returned three punts and two kickoffs for a touchdown. A career highlight came in Super Bowl XLI, when Hester returned the opening kickoff for a score.

Hester then topped his rookie season, taking back four punts for a score while returning two more kickoffs in 2007. He had an incredible 11 return touchdowns in his first 32 games.

What made Hester so unique to his team wasn't just in the record books. Teams gave their greatest efforts to avoid kicking the ball to Hester. Soldier Field would rise each time No. 23 was deep, and kickers or punters would often boot the ball out of bounds and sacrifice field possession to prevent Hester's return. He flipped the field.

Under Smith, the Bears were known for their defensive identity, but their emphasis on special teams was important. They prioritized roster spots for special teams standouts. It wasn't just Hester, Robbie Gould, Brad Maynard and Patrick Mannelly, but key specialists like Brendon Ayanbadejo, too.

The legacy of Hester remains fresh in mind a decade removed from its thrilling start. Should this mark the end, his remarkable career will be remembered for defining a position.

His beloved head coach hopes that greatness is properly recognized.

"Devin Hester is a Hall of Famer," Smith said. "I can't wait to go and watch him get inducted."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago's sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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