Devin Hester, the soft-spoken Chicago Bear with a boxer's build and a baby face, was about to break down and cry. Here was another team, rearranging his life, again.
After months of very casual conversations about playing offense instead of defense, talk with teammates and coaches had turned serious. Everyone, it seemed, wanted Hester to make the change. Head coach Lovie Smith had gone from mentioning it once a month to talking about it nearly every day. Now, Smith was calling Hester to a meeting in his office at Bears headquarters in Lake Forest.
"The same thing happened to me in college," Hester, 24, says of his days at the University of Miami. "It hurt my game. People were always saying, ‘Where should we put him?'" When Hester left college for the NFL, scouts questioned his ability to play any position at all. "I didn't want to go through the same problems all over again," Hester says.
Still, who could blame Coach Smith for trying? A few months removed from Hester's record-breaking rookie season (six kick returns for touchdowns, including the first ever opening-kickoff touchdown in a Super Bowl), the move to offense seemed logical. Why should the team wait for kickoffs and punts to see what Hester could do? "Coach Lovie said it was my decision," says Hester, the team's first rookie All-Pro since Brian Urlacher (2001). "But he said that my playing offense would make him the happiest man in the world."
Sitting in Smith's photo-filled office overlooking the practice field, Hester says tears welled up in his eyes.He stared at the floor. "I wanted to do whatever was best for the team," Hester recalls thinking. "But it was still hard. I told him that it had been frustrating, that I was stressed out."
As a high-school senior from Riviera Beach, Florida, in 2002, Hester had been one of the nation's most highly recruited players at any position. But in college that versatility became a curse. Over three college seasons, he played cornerback, nickel back, running back, fullback, and wide receiver-and he also returned punts and kickoffs. Hester says he was always learning a new playbook and, as a result, getting out on the field less and less. "Coach Lovie said he understood what I'd been through," Hester says. "He said, ‘Devin, we're going to do this the right way.' He said things would be different." So Hester told his coach that, yes, he'd move from defensive back to wide receiver and continue returning kicks on special teams. "I trusted Coach Lovie," Hester says.
The announcement made for front-page news in the sporting world. "The NFL hasn't seen a player like him," says Deion Sanders, an eight-time Pro Bowler and NFL broadcaster, who has been mentoring Hester since his sophomore year. "His move to offense was the biggest off-season move in the entire NFL."
By any measure, the move inspires renewed hope in the dodgy offense that dogged the Bears last year. With Hester now on their side, what might happen? And, just as important, will the promising young player really forget the stress of position changes past-particularly after, say, a few dropped balls or missed blocking assignments?
Early signs look promising. Much to the oohs and ahs of teammates, coaches, and a herd of sports reporters, Hester made his wide receiver début this spring during a few weeks of voluntary workouts. The way he saw it, he was playing the way he always had, just focusing on one skill more than others. His only issue: sore hamstrings. "When you're playing defensive back, you're not sprinting a lot, but on offense, you're sprinting all the time," he says, before taking a break from chatting with a reporter to munch on handfuls of M & M's and Goldfish crackers. "Other than that, it's been smooth sailing."
Photography: Kevin Banna