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Devin spent? Age might become an issue for Bears’ Hester

DevHester Whitney Mercilus

Devin Hester, Whitney Mercilus

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Updated: December 25, 2012 6:23AM

On his 30th birthday, Devin Hester was one block and eight yards from the 20th kick-return touchdown of his career in the Bears’ ­51-20 rout of the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 4 in Nashville.

Two weeks later, he was literally running in circles against the San Francisco 49ers, with a net of ­minus-1 yard on three punt returns. It was another reminder of just how difficult it is to be as great as Hester has been — especially, in his line of work, after turning 30.

Hester is far from your average kick returner. He’s the best of all time — though on behalf of Bears fans of another generation, it can’t be ignored that the great Gale Sayers scored his eight kick-return touchdowns on just 118 attempts. His ratio of one touchdown for ­every 14.8 returns eclipses Hester’s still impressive 1:23.2.

Regardless of anyone’s greatness, it’s a young man’s gig. Sayers’ final kick-return touchdown came at 24. Hester’s three touchdowns last season, when he turned 29, is more remarkable than people realize.

The teamwork, the timing and the skill required to return kicks make every touchdown a celebrated event. But with each passing day, the challenge for Hester becomes a little more than having the moon and stars align to capture the necessary magic to break out of a slump.

At 30, Hester is the third-oldest full-time kick returner (punts and kickoffs) in the NFL behind the Detroit Lions’ Stefan Logan (31) and the Seattle Seahawks’ Leon Washington (30). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Roscoe Parrish (30) and the Denver Broncos’ Jim Leonhard (30) are the only other 30-somethings returning kicks.

That’s a big reason why only four of the 229 kick-return touchdowns in the last eight seasons have been scored by players 30 or older. The last one to do it was the Dallas Cowboys’ Patrick Crayton in 2009 — 99 kick-return touchdowns ago.

‘‘There’s an age limit for every position,’’ Hester said. ‘‘But I’ve still got it. We’ve been around this organization long enough to know that when I go into a slump, I get out of them. It’s taken awhile, but eventually ...’’

Eventually, it’s going to happen. Hester is convinced of it, and so is Dave Toub, the Bears’ special-teams coordinator. Toub coached Brian Mitchell with the Philadelphia Eagles when Mitchell returned a kickoff for a touchdown at 33 and a punt for a touchdown at 34 in 2002. In fact, Mitchell scored five of his 13 career kick-return touchdowns after turning 30.

‘‘Devin’s not done yet,’’ Toub said. ‘‘He’s got a lot more left in him, and we’ve got a lot more season left and he’s going to get his share. He still has the ability. We see it in practice all the time. It’s just a matter of time.’’

Though most kick-return specialists are done by the time they turn 30, the great ones have staying power. Mel Gray scored seven of his nine kick-return touchdowns after turning 30, including three kickoff touchdowns at 33 in 1994. He’s the oldest player to return a kickoff for a touchdown in NFL history. Deion Sanders scored four of his nine punt-return touchdowns after turning 30. His last kick-return touchdown at 32 in 1999 came more than 10 years after his first at 22 in 1989.

Those are career standards that Hester can shoot for, and he takes a lot of pride in still being a threat at his age.

‘‘Oh, yeah. I do,’’ he said. ‘‘A lot of guys leave the game and have three or four [touchdowns]. I’m at the top of my game. Last season, I had three and led the league in [punt-return] average at 29.

‘‘We’ve got six games left. I can still sneak two or three in there. Most of our returns come later in the season anyway. It’ll come eventually.’’

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