Falcons should be thankful to have Hester

ATLANTA -- As he stood at the podium relishing his new NFL record for return touchdowns, an emotional Devin Hester acknowledged a handful of folks who helped him along the way.

The Atlanta Falcons receiver/return man started by thanking God. Then he talked about how his mother, Juanita Brown, encourages him on a daily basis.

"Every day before I leave the hotel, I call her and I get a prayer from her," Hester said. "She just motivates me to go out and do what this team is capable of doing and what I'm capable of doing."

Then Hester praised his mentor, former Atlanta Falcon and current television analyst Deion Sanders, whom Hester surpassed with his 20th return touchdown in Thursday night's 56-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Hester paid tribute to Sanders by high-stepping to the end zone while striking a Deion-style pose as he returned a punt 62 yards for a score.

Hester wanted to save the ball for Sanders.

"But the ball is on the way to Canton, Ohio," he said of where the Pro Football Hall of Fame is located. "They hurried up and took the ball from me. When I get it back, you know I am going to give him the ball."

Sanders, who was on the sideline for CBS/NFL Network, told Hester he almost pulled a hamstring sprinting toward the end zone to follow him.

"It is tough to break record from a guy that holds it that's my No. 1 mentor," Hester said. "The relationship that Deion and I have started back in college, and to this day I get a text from him every day. Every day I wake up, that's my alarm.

"I kind of teared up a little bit, and he knows that if anyone was capable of breaking that record and he wanted anyone to break it, then I knew it was going to be me."

Hester couldn't forget Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith, the man who drafted him in Chicago when Smith was the Bears' head coach. The two shared a moment before the game, and Hester mentioned that although he hated playing against Smith, at least his old coach would be there if he happened to break the record.

He did.

Indeed, this was Hester's night. But it symbolized much more than a historic moment. The energy he brings and his production will only help the Falcons thrive.

"You can’t say enough about him," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "Devin's been awesome since he's gotten here. And he is as good a teammate as you could ask for. He works as hard as anybody I've been around. And he's extremely humble. I couldn't be more happy for him to break the record tonight."

Hester's record-setting return -- his 14th on a punt to go with five kickoffs and one field-goal attempt taken back for TDs -- was far from his only contribution. He scored the first rushing touchdown of his career on a 20-yard reverse in the second quarter, following a block from fullback Patrick DiMarco. But even more impressive is how Hester stripped Buccaneers safety Mark Barron and recovered the fumble after Barron recovered a fumble by Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo. It allowed the Falcons to remain on offense and led to Ryan's 8-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones, which gave Atlanta a 14-0 lead in the eventual blowout.

"That could have been one of the biggest plays of the game," Ryan said of Hester strip and recovery. "Kind of channeled some of his inner-defense from college."

Hester said he learned the ball-punch trick from former Bears teammate Charles Tillman.

Funny Hester would mention his former team. Had Chicago not given up on him, the Falcons might never have seen him in a No. 17 uniform.

Now, the Bears might have some regrets. Hester sure doesn't.

"Chicago knew I was unhappy with things that were going on," Hester said. "But I'm here in Atlanta, and I'm happy to be here. And that's all that matters.

"I know the fans in Chicago hate what's going on. I know the fans didn't want me to leave. But at the same time, me and the organization were both on the same page with me not being happy. So, this is just a new life and a new fresh start for me."

And things have started off pretty well for Devin Hester, the Atlanta Falcon.