LAS VEGAS — Before this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class was announced, there was nobody in the Hall of Fame like Devin Hester.
But there weren’t many players in NFL history like Hester either.
Hester, arguably the greatest kick return in NFL history, is the first player to get into the Hall of Fame primarily as a kick returner. He is part of the class of 2024, which was announced Thursday night at NFL Honors.
The rest of the class was defensive end Dwight Freeney, receiver Andre Johnson, linebacker Randy Gradishar, linebacker Patrick Willis, defensive tackle Steve McMichael and defensive end Julius Peppers.
Other players like Deion Sanders and Tim Brown were great returners and are in the Hall of Fame, but they got in mostly for their work on offense or defense. Hester never really stood out as a cornerback or after he transitioned to wide receiver, but he was electric on kickoff and punt returns.
Hester, who spent eight of his 11 NFL seasons with the Chicago Bears, owns NFL records for kick return touchdowns (19), punt return touchdowns (14) and total return touchdowns (20) counting punts, kickoffs, missed field goals, fumbles and interceptions. He was on the NFL’s all-decade team of the 2000s.
Hester was amazing right away as a second-round pick in 2006. As a rookie he set an NFL single season record with five kick return touchdowns and then capped that season by returning the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl for a touchdown. Hester broke his own record in 2007 with six kick return touchdowns.
As great as Hester was as a returner, there was no precedent for a player like him getting into the Hall of Fame. He was a finalist in 2022 and 2023 but couldn’t get enough votes to make it into the Hall. Hester is finally in, a unique player among the greats enshrined in Canton.
Here is a closer look at the rest of the 2024 Hall of Fame class:
DE Dwight Freeney
Freeney, the longtime standout with the Indianapolis Colts, was one of the best pass rushers of his generation. He made seven Pro Bowls and had 125.5 career sacks. Freeney played 11 seasons with the Colts, two with the San Diego Chargers, one with the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons and split his final season between the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions.
WR Andre Johnson
One of the most prolific receivers this century is in the Hall of Fame. Johnson spent 12 seasons with the Houston Texans, one with the Indianapolis Colts and one with the Houston Texans, and posted 14,185 receiving yards and 70 touchdowns. Johnson led the NFL in receiving twice. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler.
LB Randy Gradishar
Gradishar, a tackling machine for the old “Orange Crush” defense of the Denver Broncos in the 1970s, waited a long time to get in. Gradishar played all 10 of his NFL seasons with the Broncos and was a seven-time Pro Bowler and the 1978 Defensive Player of the Year.
LB Patrick Willis
Willis was a great player for the San Francisco 49ers and made seven Pro Bowls and was a five-time first-team All-Pro in just eight seasons. Willis led the NFL with 174 tackles as a rookie, collecting NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and was a standout in every season after that for San Francisco.
DT Steve McMichael
“Mongo” is finally in the Hall. McMichael was a key member of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense and now the latest member of that team to the make the Hall of Fame. He made it through a vote from the seniors committee. McMichael was a two-time All-Pro who played 15 seasons. He spent 13 with the Bears, one with the Green Bay Packers and another with the New England Patriots. He had 95 sacks in his career. McMichael, still a fan favorite in Chicago, is battling ALS and was represented by his wife Misty at NFL Honors.
DE Julius Peppers
Peppers was a first-ballot selection, and that wasn’t a surprise. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler with the Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers over a 17-year career. Peppers, the second pick of the 2002 draft, had 159.5 sacks. He was part of the all-decade team for the 2000s and 2010s.