Devin Hester forever tied to Lovie Smith

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It was a devastating moment for Devin Hester, one that nearly caused him to run away from football.

Back in December 2012, the day Lovie Smith was fired as the head coach in Chicago, an emotional Hester addressed reporters in the Bears' locker room and contemplated retirement. He never imagined playing for another coach after establishing an everlasting bond with Smith.

"That situation goes so deep because he was the first coach who took a chance on me coming out of college in Miami," Hester said. "From that point, I just had so much respect for him. I'm a loyal guy, man. He'll always be one of my favorite coaches.

"The situation I was in back in Chicago, he was the only one that was going to bat for me. He was the only one who had the power to do it. I knew right then when he was gone, my career there was going to be pretty short."

Hester decided to gut out one more disappointing season in Chicago before signing with the Atlanta Falcons this offseason. Now, he'll face his former coach for the first time Thursday night as Smith's Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to the Georgia Dome.

"I just have so much respect for him not only as a person, but as a coach," Hester said. "He was fun to be around."

Smith is just as anxious about the reunion.

"Everyone who knows me knows that Devin's one of my favorites," Smith said. "He's one of my favorite players, talking just football. My first head job and I got to coach the greatest returner of all time. That was special, the things I was able to see him do with his hands on the ball.

"But when I talk about favorite, Devin Hester is family. This is a lifetime relationship we have here. Devin Hester is one of the best people you'll ever get a chance to meet."

Smith wanted to sign Hester in Tampa, particularly since the return game is something the Buccaneers are lacking. Hester also has a close tie with Buccaneers receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker and would have been utilized on offense. In the end, the Falcons' three-year, $9 million deal to Hester that included $4 million guaranteed was something the Buccaneers couldn't match.

"I wanted Devin to get as much money as he possibly could," Smith said.

Hester also respects Smith for believing in him as a receiver. Hester actually came to the Bears as a return man/defensive back. In 2009, he had a career-high 57 catches for 757 yards and three touchdowns in then-offensive coordinator Ron Turner's scheme.

Critics often questioned Hester's ability to absorb the offensive playbook. Such talk annoyed Smith.

"It's a shame when you get labeled a little bit for something," Smith said. "I remember when Brandon Marshall first got there in Chicago and talked about how special Devin was as a receiver. If you're special with the ball, you're special with the ball. It's a shame what happened with him as a receiver in Chicago."

A big part of the problem was the lack of chemistry between Hester and quarterback Jay Cutler. It's no secret Cutler scolded Hester, at times. It led to Hester asking not to play offense his final season with the Bears.

"I don't know all the dynamics on that, but you've got to really search hard not to like Devin Hester," Smith said.

In Atlanta, Hester has opened eyes at receiver. He gives the Falcons another dynamic weapon alongside Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Harry Douglas. Hester has six catches for 101 yards with a long play of 35 yards. He had two touchdown receptions in preseason games.

"That's the great part about what Mike (Smith) has done along with Terry Robiskie and Dirk Koetter, to see that Devin can do more than just return kicks," Smith said.

In the return game, Hester sits one touchdown away from setting the NFL record for all-return touchdowns. He is currently tied with mentor Deion Sanders at 19.

Wouldn't it be something if No. 20 came against his old coach?

"He's a lifetime friend; I feel like he'll be a part of my family forever," Smith said. "And he's the greatest returner of all time. So when you're on the opposing sideline, you're not real happy about that."