Hester attended Suncoast High School, where he played football as a cornerback, wide receiver, return specialist, and running back. He earned recognition from SuperPrep.com as the top high school prospect in Florida, and Parade, who named Hester onto their All-American team. Hester also participated in the 2002 CaliFlorida Bowl, where he returned a kick for an 80-yard touchdown. His success prompted his teammates to nickname him "Sugar Foot".
During his youth, Hester enjoyed following the Dallas Cowboys. He especially idolized Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. He was also a fan of the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson era. Fred Taylor of the University of Florida was Hester's favorite athlete. In addition to football, he also enjoyed playing soccer and following baseball.
Hester became the first football player in Miami Hurricanes' recent history to play as member of the special, offensive, and defensive teams. He was known as "Hurricane Hester" by his fans and teammates. During his productive tenure at the University of Miami, Hester befriended Deion Sanders through Ed Reed, one of Sanders’ teammates who was an alumnus of the University of Miami. Deion Sanders counseled, advised, and encouraged Hester. Hester was also known as “Anytime” in college, which is a tribute to Sanders’ nickname, “Prime Time”. He also adopted Sanders’ signature touchdown dance, and showboating maneuvers, which he carried to his future NFL career.
|Weight||40 yd||20 ss||3-cone||Vert||BP||Wonderlic|
|* represents NFL Combine|
Hester began his professional career in the National Football League with the Chicago Bears, who selected him in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. The team originally drafted Hester as a cornerback, but they intended to play him as a return specialist, following the retirement of Jerry Azumah, and departure of Bobby Wade. The team's decision to draft Hester was initially criticized by fans and sports analysts, who believed the Bears should have spent their early picks on offensive prospects.
In thirteen weeks as a professional football player, Hester recorded six return touchdowns, including a then-record tying 108-yard touchdown from a missed field goal against the New York Giants. He also returned a punt for a clutch 83-yard game-winning touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals, and two kickoff returns in one game against the St. Louis Rams. Following his record-breaking game during week fourteen, opposing teams exercised additional caution when allowing Hester to return kicks. During the postseason Hester nearly ran back a punt at a critical moment against the Seattle Seahawks, but it was called back on a blocking penalty. Regardless, the Bears won both NFC playoffs rounds, and advanced to Super Bowl XLI to play the Indianapolis Colts. He started the game on a high note for the Bears by returning the game’s opening kick for a touchdown. The feat was the first touchdown return in an opening kickoff in Super Bowl history. It also marked the quickest lead ever taken by any team. Following the kick, the Colts did not kick the ball directly to Hester, significantly limiting the Bears’ return efforts.
Hester's feats in 2006 earned him three NFC Special Teams Player of the week Awards, and a trip to the 2007 Pro Bowl. After the 2006 season ended, he was named as the "NFC’s Player of the Month" for December, and was a finalist in the 2006 Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year voting. He was also voted onto the Associated Press’s 2006 All-Pro team with 48 and a half votes, finishing fourth behind LaDainian Tomlinson, Champ Bailey, and Jason Taylor who all received 50 votes. He finished the 2006 season by accumulating three touchdowns for 600 yards on 47 punt returns, and two touchdowns for 528 yards on 20 kick returns, thus making him one of the league’s most productive kick and punt returners. Even without taking an offensive snap prior to week fourteen, Hester was the Bears' second leading scorer, behind kicker Robbie Gould. On a negative note, Hester struggled to control the football at times, having games with multiple fumbles on at least two separate occasions.
Many fans speculated that Hester’s speed and prior experience as a wide receiver would earn him a spot on the Bears' offense, similar to teammate Rashied Davis. While Lovie Smith dismissed the speculation, he played Hester as a wide receiver for one play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on December 17, 2006. Hester attributes his talent to his mentor, Deion Sanders, whom Hester claims helped him perfect his return game. Sanders, a former cornerback and kick returner, compliments Hester after every productive performance. However, Sanders also berated Hester for taunting another player en route to his second touchdown return against the St. Louis Rams. His teammates and coaches have also praised Hester. After the 2006 season, he was voted to receive the team's Brian Piccolo Award, which is given to a player who possesses a good character and work ethic.
Hester returned his first touchdown of the season, a 73-yard punt return, against the Kansas City Chiefs during week two. He nearly recorded a second touchdown return, but the play was negated by a holding penalty. Hester established himself as a threat on offense, when he caught an 81-yard touchdown pass from Brian Griese against the Minnesota Vikings. He also returned a punt for a 89-yard touchdown, though the Bears’ lost the game. In the weeks to come, many opposing special teams began to kick the ball away from Hester, attributing to, according to Mike Pereira, a 132% increase in kickoffs that went out-of-bounds. Rod Marinelli, the head coach of the Detroit Lions, placed a strong emphasis on kicking the ball away from Hester, stating, “kick the ball into Lake Michigan and make sure it (sinks) to the bottom.”
Before the Bears’ week twelve match-up against the Denver Broncos, Todd Sauerbrun infamously stated that he would kick the ball to Hester. Hester, who had not returned a kick for a touchdown in almost a month, responded by returning a punt and kick-off for touchdowns. Keith Olbermann, a commentator for NBC Sunday Night Football, awarded Sauerbrun with the dubious “Worst Person in the NFL Award” for kicking the ball to Hester, and failing to tackle him. The two touchdowns gave Hester the most kick returns for touchdowns in the Bears’ franchise history. Hester concluded the season with 64-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 55-yard touchdown reception against the New Orleans Saints. He was even given the opportunity to throw a pass on a variation of a wide receiver reverse, but he was sacked while motioning to Bernard Berrian.
Hester finished the season with six kicks returned for touchdowns, which set a League record. He finished the season ranking fourth on the League’s all-time combined kick return list, behind Brian Mitchell (13), Eric Metcalf (12), and Dante Hall (12). Additionally, he amassed 299 yards on twenty receptions as a receiver, though he was often used as a decoy. His play on offense received mix commentary. While the Bears’ coaching staff believed Hester showed enough progress to become one of the teams top receivers in 2008, Hester was prone to making small errors, including running routes incorrectly or dropping catches. He drew a fifteen-yard face-mask penalty whilst attempting to fend off a would-be tackler in a game against the Saints, and received a $5,000 dollar fine. Nevertheless, Hester concluded the season with four Player of the Week Awards, giving him a franchise high seven total in his career, and an invitation to the 2008 Pro Bowl.
Hester missed the third game of the season after tearing cartilage in his ribs during the previous week. He returned to the field in the team's week four contest against the Philadelphia Eagles, where he caught his first touchdown of the season. Lovie Smith gave Hester his first starting job as a wide receiver the next week, in place of the injured Brandon Lloyd. Hester went on to catch five passes for 66 yards and one touchdown.
*Shared with Nathan Vasher
**Shared with eleven others
Hester’s successful rookie year drew him much publicity and popularity. Ever since his record-breaking performance against the Rams, Hester has been offered marketing opportunities from Nike, soft drink, and cell phone companies. There has also been a surge in the demand for Hester’s jerseys within the Chicagoland sporting stores. Also, Hester was invited to throw the ceremonial opening pitch and sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game at the Chicago Cubs' 2007 home opener. Along with teammates Rex Grossman and Tommie Harris, Hester appeared on the February 2007 issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids. His reputation has also been bolstered by EA Sports' Madden NFL 08, where Hester's perfect 100 speed rating made him the fastest player in the game's history. Hester also appeared in a promotional video for the game.