TAMPA — Devin Hester wanted to retire as a Chicago Bear. The Bears, though, have seemingly retired any plans for that, announcing Thursday they would not attempt to re-sign the free agent return specialist.
Hester expected as much during an interview Wednesday night on NFL Network, as he hinted strongly that joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might be at the top of his list of options once the free agent marketplace opens Tuesday.
“(Bucs coach) Lovie (Smith) is my number one coach right now because he's the one who took a chance on me coming out in the draft,'' Hester said. “He has all my respect, so if he . . . (asks) me to come play wit him again, my arms are open.''
Smith has made no secret of his desire to field strong special teams units and the need for a dynamic returner. Even at 31 years of age, Hester would seem to fill the need for the latter.
He is coming off a season in which he returned 52 kickoffs for a league-leading 1,436 yards as well as 18 punts for 256 yards and a touchdown that was the 19th return for a touchdown of his career.
That tied him with Hall of Famer Deion Sanders for the most total touchdown returns in NFL history. Hester's 13 career punt returns for touchdowns is also an NFL record.
On Thursday, Bears general manager Phil Emery said it had been an honor to have Hester on the team, adding "when his career is over he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family."
Emery said, "The memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers. Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person. He is a great teammate, husband and father."
Hester, a three-time Pro Bowler who first came to the NFL with the Bears in 2006 and now lives in Orlando, said Wednesday he knew his days with the Bears were over.
“I know Chicago wants to go a different route with me,'' he said. “All I can say is thanks to the fans for the support. They've always been great to me, loyal."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.