RENTON Devin Hester has been waiting for more than a dozen years to say what he finally did to Pete Carroll upon his arrival to the Seahawks.’
“You finally gave me a scholarship!” the NFL record-holder for return touchdowns said Wednesday.
That was after his first practice since Seattle made official his signing to run back punts and kickoffs in the playoffs. Those begin Saturday for Seattle against Detroit at CenturyLink Field.
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Hester is 34 years old. But he still, 16 years later, remembers that when Carroll was the head man at USC he and the Trojans were the only major college football program that did not offer him a scholarship. Hester, a Parade magazine All-American at Suncoast Community High School in Riviera Beach, Florida, ultimately stayed in his home state in 2002 by signing with the University of Miami.
“(USC) was the only college that didn’t offer me a scholarship when I was in high school,” Hester said.
“So (Wednesday) I said, ‘Hey, I appreciate you giving me a scholarship, coach.’”
Hester smiled at that.
“It was the only one that didn’t offer me at the time,” he said. “I felt bad.”
He smiled a lot in five minutes following Wednesday’s indoor practice. No wonder. He went from unemployed, out of football, onto a division champion with an immediate, featured role and a chance at the Super Bowl.
Turns out, the Seahawks are benefiting from a mistake by a former member of a division rival.
Almost immediately after Baltimore released him after he fumbled five times in 12 games during his only season with the Ravens, Hester got an offer from the king of the AFC.
“Got a call from New England. I went there and tried out. And I was getting ready to sign with the Patriots,” Hester said. “And Michael Floyd got released (Dec. 14 by Arizona, days after his arrest for driving under the influence).”
The Patriots signed the suddenly available Floyd instead of Hester.
“They thought receiver was more important, was what they needed at the time. Week later, got a call from here.
Hester has played in one Super Bowl during his 11-year career, for Chicago when it lost to Indianapolis in Super Bowl 41 a decade ago. He returned the opening kickoff of that Super Bowl for a touchdown. He was “exhilarating” (to use the word of new Seahawks teammate Russell Wilson on Wednesday) while with beginning his career with the Bears. Eleven of his NFL-record 19 kickoff and punt returns for touchdown came in his first two seasons with Chicago, in 2006 and ‘07.
“As you can see, this is a blessing, to get an opportunity. To get released and then to be back -- and have the opportunity to be back for the playoffs.
“My goal is now -- with the career that I’ve had, I don’t have a Super Bowl ring. What a great opportunity that I have right now, standing here in front of you guys and being able to play for the Seattle Seahawks.”
Hester confirmed that he indeed will return both kickoff and punts for the Seahawks. They used J.D. McKissic, whom they claimed off waivers last month from Atlanta, on kickoff last weekend in the regular-season finale at San Francisco and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman on punts. Sherman made fair catches on four of his five fielded punts against the 49ers, and it appeared Seattle was going into Bryan Walters secure-the-ball-only mode on punt returns for this postseason.
Then they got Hester, the most explosive returner in NFL history.
“Number one, I always go, ‘Who do you not want to play against?’” Seahawks special-teams coach Brian Schneider said. “I’ve never wanted to play, never enjoyed playing against him. I assume that most special-teams coaches would say that. He is such a threat. And he affects different things. He affects the way you punt the ball, the way you kick the ball. He never a guy I looked forward to going against.”
That, of course, was when Hester was in his prime.
The Seahawks -- and the Lions, for that matter -- will find out what he has left on Saturday night.
Schneider wouldn’t answer when I asked if Hester has a green light to return anything from anywhere at any time.
“That’s all Coach Carroll’s decision,” Schneider dutifully said.
But why else would Seattle have signed him for the playoffs?