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Chicago Bears great Devin Hester is the 1st primary returner elected to Hall of Fame, while DT Steve McMichael also gets nod

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS

The wait is over.

In his third year as a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Chicago Bears great Devin Hester broke through and formally was announced Thursday night in Las Vegas as a member of the Class of 2024.

Hester was joined in that prestigious group by former Bears defensive tackle Steve McMichael and pass rusher Julius Peppers. They will be enshrined Aug. 3 in Canton, Ohio, adding to the Bears’ huge presence in the Hall.

Hester and McMichael will become the 31st and 32nd Bears enshrined. Peppers, who played four of his 17 seasons in Chicago, will go in as a member of the Carolina Panthers. The other modern-era players who made the cut were pass rusher Dwight Freeney, linebacker Patrick Willis and wide receiver receiver Andre Johnson.

Hester, who played eight seasons for the Bears and 11 overall, set an NFL record with 20 regular-season return touchdowns and established himself as one of the most dangerous special teams weapons of all time.

Thursday’s recognition provided excitement and a sigh of relief for Hester, who has coveted the Hall of Fame honor since his career ended.

“I really thought I was a first ballot (Hall of Famer),” Hester told reporters in Las Vegas. “But at the end of the day, I’m just blessed and I’m honored to be the first returner. It’s hard to say who’s the No. 1 quarterback, who’s the No. 2 running back, who’s the No. 1 defensive player. But … I can honestly say that right now, I am the No. 1 returner of all time.

“It’s a great honor, and hopefully God’s blessing will allow me to open up the doors for the rest of the returners and not only returners but special teams players as well … (to) have the feeling they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.”

Hester learned the news of his inclusion in the class from Hall of Fame running back Edgerrin James, who lives near Hester in Florida. They share a love of classic cars, and James asked Hester if he wanted to take the cars out one day.

“He pulled up and honked the horn, and when I went outside and looked, he had on his gold jacket,” Hester told SiriusXM Radio on Thursday night. “The camera crew was out there. … It was a great honor to see all that and to see the crew and to know that I was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.”

McMichael, 66, who has been ravaged by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for more than three years, has lost the ability to speak or move. But when he recently received the news that his Hall of Fame entry had been approved through a FaceTime call from former teammate and Hall of Famer Richard Dent, he opened both eyes widely as acknowledgment.

“In the NFL world we’ve known he should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago,” McMichael’s wife, Misty, told reporters in Las Vegas at the NFL Honors event. “But I wanted the whole word to know. And now, finally, the whole world knows. Forever and ever.”

Hester, 41, becomes the first primary returner to enter the Hall of Fame, and he made it because, as former NFL coach Tony Dungy said, he was “one of those once-in-a-lifetime guys.”

“Devin revolutionized the game,” Bears Chairman George McCaskey said in a statement Thursday night. “No one had seen anything like him, and there hasn’t been anyone like him since. He had opposing head coaches telling their special teams coordinators, ‘Don’t kick to that guy.’ And they suffered the consequences when the message didn’t get through.”

Hester used his speed, burst, change of direction and uncanny vision to total 13 return touchdowns in his first two years with the Bears, including the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI.

Former Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub noted how Hester “raised the level of everybody,” enticing teammates to play on his special teams units and making returns can’t-miss plays for everyone.

“It was special,” Toub said. “You could see it in the game. Brian Urlacher and all of our starters, they were standing up during punt returns. Kickoffs, everyone was right up on the sideline watching to see what would happen. They didn’t want to miss it. They knew something special was going to happen. It was just so fun. Electric.”

Whenever “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” blared from the Soldier Field speakers before kickoffs during Hester’s eight seasons with the Bears, anticipation grew — among fans, Bears players and even Hester.

“That feeling that song brought to me before kickoff returns, I honestly sometimes thought about snatching my helmet off while the ball was in the air. That’s how unstoppable I felt,” Hester told the Tribune in 2022. “Like, I literally was sometimes thinking about, ‘What if I snatched my helmet off, threw it to the side, fielded the kick and take it back?’”

Hester’s 14 punt return touchdowns remains an NFL record, and his 3,695 punt return yards ranks third all time. He had five regular-season kickoff return touchdowns plus the unforgettable score to begin the Super Bowl.

For opposing coaches, it was a nightmare.

“He cost a lot of coaches a lot of sleep,” current Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said. “It was tough to try to keep the ball away from him on punt and on kickoff. … I’m glad Devin was here before the rules changed so that the whole world can appreciate how special his talent really was.”

Toub knew the Bears had something special in the second-round draft pick out of Miami during the 2006 preseason, understanding immediately that Hester’s playmaking explosion would translate in the NFL. Hester validated that belief in his first regular-season game against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 10, 2006.

He caught Jon Ryan’s fourth-quarter punt at the 16-yard line, weaved through a couple of crowds of defenders, shifted to a new gear at the Bears 30 and then outran the rest for an 84-yard touchdown.

He had six more return touchdowns as a rookie, each with an electrifying story.

His 83-yard punt return to seal a 24-23 win against the Arizona Cardinals on “Monday Night Football” completed one of the greatest comebacks in team history and helped trigger Dennis Green’s infamous “The Bears are who we thought they were!” rant.

Hester’s 108-yard missed field goal return against the New York Giants tied Nathan Vasher for the longest return in Bears history.

And his 92-yard kickoff return to open Super Bowl XLI against the Indianapolis Colts remains perhaps the greatest Bears play this century.

Hester told the Tribune in 2019 that as that game got underway, all he was thinking was: “Please let them kick it to me! Please let them kick it to me!”

“I knew we were only getting one opportunity,” Hester said. “And if we do break one for 30 or 40 yards, that’s it. I knew I wasn’t getting another one. So I said to myself, the one I get, I’m going to make sure I score on it.”

Dungy, a Hall of Fame coach, made a late decision to kick to Hester, trying to help the Colts set the tone for the biggest game of their lives. Instead, Hester raced away with his most memorable moment.

“I saw a lot of dangerous returners during my 30 years in the NFL,” Dungy told the Tribune in 2019, “but Devin was a guy where you knew from probably Week 5 of his rookie year just how truly special he was. And he was still able to do that year after year, over and over.

“He was so dangerous. He’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime guys. And I’ve always thought that if you’re the best at what you do, if you’re the dominant player at your position, you need to be in the Hall of Fame.”

Hester’s special teams feats unlocked his entry into the Hall of Fame. But it’s at least worth noting the offensive contributions he made to the Bears. After being drafted as a cornerback, he proved so special with the ball in his hands that coach Lovie Smith persuaded him to convert to wide receiver in 2007, a move Hester acknowledges he made with reluctance and what he described as almost constant anxiety.

Still, in the six seasons he served in that dual role for the Bears, Hester totaled 217 catches, 2,807 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. In 2008 and 2009, he led the Bears in receiving yards.

In 2019, in advance of the league’s 100th season, Hester was named to the NFL 100 All-Time Team as a return specialist. He was twice named to the league’s All-Decade Team — in the 2000s and 2010s — and was a three-time first-team All-Pro and a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

Hester was ranked the No. 19 Bears player of all time by the Tribune and No. 20 by the team in its official Bears Centennial Scrapbook.

“In my mind,” Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri said, “the Hall of Fame is for guys who changed the league and did special things that other guys weren’t capable of. He’s that guy.”

Hester played his final NFL game for the Seattle Seahawks during the 2016 playoffs and formally retired as a Bear more than a year later. When he officially stepped away, he was certain he had finished a Hall of Fame-worthy career and was convinced he would be a first-ballot inductee.

But despite being a finalist in his first year of eligibility in 2021, Hester fell one step short of having his candidacy subject to a “Yes” or “No” vote by the selection committee. That fate repeated itself the next year with the selection process limiting each modern-era class of Hall of Famers to a maximum of five members and the committee continuing to compare Hester’s specialist achievements against the accomplishments of candidates who played more extensive roles on offense and defense.

Despite all the assurances Hester received that his Hall of Fame entry was undoubtedly a “when not if” scenario, he felt heartbreak and confusion when the previous two Hall of Fame cycles ended, admitting he “boo-hoo cried” after each.

“At the end of the day, when you look at the Hall of Fame, you don’t categorize a guy for what position he played,” Hester told the Tribune in September 2022. “You categorize a guy for what he brought to the game of football. That’s how I want to be viewed.”

When he finally got word of his inclusion, Hester said on SiriusXM he “may have slipped up and told one or two people.” He had received the call that he didn’t make it the previous two years about Jan. 24 or 25, and his family sought answers on the same dates this year.

He didn’t know whether to say he did or didn’t receive the honor.

“So it’s like, ‘Man, they ain’t called me yet,’ ” Hester said. “Then in the back of their head, they’re like, ‘No, he’s lying.’ ”

Now they all can celebrate with the rest of Bears fans.

McMichael’s induction seemed to become a foregone conclusion in August after the Hall of Fame’s Seniors Committee advanced him in the selection process — along with Art Powell and Randy Gradishar — for consideration as senior finalists.

And indeed, when the Hall’s 50-member selection committee voted last month, McMichael easily surpassed the 80% approval needed for entry.

He will become the sixth Bears player from the 1985 Super Bowl champions to have a bust in Canton, joining Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent and Jimbo Covert.

The coach of that team, Mike Ditka, is also in the Hall and forever valued McMichael’s intelligence and high level of give-a-damn, two qualities that earned him widespread respect from coaches, teammates and opponents — no matter how oafish, bombastic and easily distracted McMichael acted when adopting the caricatured persona of “Mongo.”

“We all always think of how loud and vocal he would be as a character off the field,” former Bears safety Gary Fencik told the Tribune this week. “But on the field, Steve was a guy who took immense pride in just doing his job. Never complained. Never needed the outside recognition. He just relished in being such a strong complement to the rest of our defensive players. He was just very reliable. Always a very reliable teammate.”

That sense of accountability helped McMichael play 191 consecutive regular-season games in 13 seasons as a Bear, plus 12 playoff games. His grit and determination propelled him to 92 1/2 career sacks with the Bears and helped him earn All-Pro honors five times, including first-team distinctions in 1985 and 1987.

McMichael was ranked 18th — one spot ahead of Hester — on the Tribune’s list of greatest Bears.

He was a major contributor to one of the greatest defenses in NFL history and took pride in helping the Bears to their only Super Bowl triumph. For those who knew him best during his playing days, McMichael was constantly driven by the desire to impress his teammates with his work ethic and production.

“We all truly appreciated the effort he consistently made for a very, very long time,” Fencik said.

Within McMichael’s inner circle, there’s a belief that the revival of his Hall of Fame quest in recent years provided added purpose to his fight with ALS. That’s partly why Thursday’s official recognition will resonate so profoundly.

Fencik was part of a small group of family, friends and former teammates who spent Thursday night at McMichael’s bedside in Homer Glen watching the NFL Honors show on CBS. Others in attendance included Matt Suhey, Jim Osborne, Jim Morrissey, Tyrone Keys, Kris Haines, Bruce Herron and Brian McCaskey.

“We’re all so pleased for Steve,” Fencik said. “It’s an incredible honor to even be considered for the Hall of Fame. But to actually make it in? It’s amazing.

“Couple that with the condition he is in, we all understand he is grateful. For as long as he’s able to continue living, he’s going to know that he’s a Hall of Famer. It’s such a great reflection on him and our team. And everybody is very proud that there’s another Bear going in.”

George McCaskey said in a statement that the honor for McMichael was “long overdue.”

“Steve showed us all what can be achieved through grit, toughness and hard work,” McCaskey said. “And he has earned his place among game’s immortals.”

Peppers, 44, is a first-ballot Hall of Famer after a 17-year career in which he totaled 159 1/2 sacks, fourth all time. He had 52 forced fumbles, 11 interceptions, four pick-sixes and two fumble return touchdowns.

The No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft out of North Carolina, Peppers spent the first eight and last two years of his career with the Panthers. After joining the Bears on a six-year, $91.5 million contract in 2010, Peppers was named an All-Pro once and a Pro Bowler three times in four seasons in Chicago.

He had 37 1/2 sacks from 2010-13, never reaching his single-season high of 14 1/2 in 2008. But he was a driving force behind the Bears’ defensive success in Smith’s final three seasons as coach, when the team consistently was near the top of the league in takeaways.

In the Tribune’s 2019 ranking of the 100 best Bears players, Peppers checked in at No. 63 despite spending only a fraction of his career with the team. He also played three seasons with the Green Bay Packers.

“Julius Peppers is the league’s defensive player of the year. Write that,” Urlacher told the Tribune in 2010. “You look at Pep, I mean, maybe the sacks aren’t all the way there yet, but he has the numbers. He gets double-teamed every play. He doesn’t have as many sacks as (Clay Matthews) does, but I think he’s the guy.”

Now Peppers, too, is a Hall of Famer, setting the stage for a summer weekend in Canton that promises to have a notable Bears presence.

“It’s still unbelievable,” Peppers said on SiriusXM. “It’s still surreal. I don’t know when the feeling is going to leave, but it hasn’t left yet. And it’s humbling.”

Late Thursday, Hester was still processing an honor that felt surreal, one he didn’t even really begin to dream about until he made the NFL.

“You have you’re the Pro Bowl player, the All-Pro player. But then you have the Greek gods — which are the Hall of Famers,” Hester told reporters in Las Vegas. “To be in that category? To be listed as a Hall of Famer, man, it’s amazing.”