The punted ball toppled harmlessly — or so it seemed — onto the Tiger Stadium turf. A group of Cincinnati Bengals surrounded it, waiting for it to stop moving, to make the expected final downing. Then in that moment, when time stopped, along with all the football players’ feet, Lemuel Barney snatched the pigskin up from the ground and took off running with it.

Before the stunned Bengals punt cover team could react, Barney was in the end zone, some 60 yards from where he stole the football from under their noses.

That play occurred in 1970. And yes, I remember it, which makes me comfortable to make the declaration I’m about to make today — as someone who should know. Being an old coot and all.

I’ve seen Barney electrify the masses. And Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. And Mel Gray. And “Neon” Deion Sanders. And many more in between. But no one — and I’m sorry, Lem and Mel, the two greatest return men in Lions history — have I seen that can do with the football what Devin Hester can do.

Hester ran another punt back for a TD yesterday, some 90 yards, and then jitterbugged with a Brian Griese pass for an 89-yard score, and the fact that his Chicago Bears lost to the Minnesota Vikings, 34-31, can hardly be blamed on him. In fact, they’d be nowhere near the Vikes if it wasn’t for Hester’s magic.

He did it to the Lions, too — a kickoff return that, as usual with his returns, seemed innocent in its beginning, until he spotted a sliver of daylight and went into turbo throttle. It took the air out of the Lions’ sails for a moment in Week 4, before they recovered and made Hester another hero in a losing cause. His other returns that Sunday last month didn’t go all the way, but several were dicey enough to literally cause the Ford Field crowd to gasp.


Hester, in a typical pose: looking back at his pursuers

Hester is, in just his second NFL season, the finest return man the league has ever known. I say that because of his constant ability to make something out of nothing. Last season among his many happy returns, he ran back a missed field goal for a Bears touchdown — nearly 110 yards, when the play seemed dead, a la Barney against the Bengals in 1970.

He took the opening kickoff back for a score — in the Super Bowl, no less.

Some return men are exciting because of their sheer speed. Once those types hit that crease, behind their blocking wedge, it’s basically a straight shot to the end zone. That takes skill, certainly. But those are entertainers blessed with speed and not much else. For every one of those straight shots to the end zone, they take about 20 terrific hits to the mid-section.

Hester is unique. He often starts out slow, as if he has this ability to slow everyone else down on the field, to see where they AREN’T going to be. Then, in a flash, he fires up his jets, and it’s pretty much over with. Rarely, on any of his TD returns, is Hester ever actually touched. But his routes to the end zone are hardly ever straight shots. He doesn’t rely just on speed. In fact, his speed is the last thing that kicks in.

The late sports columnist Joe Falls had a great line about Barney, that I think is more than appropriate for Devin Hester, too.

“When Lem Barney touched the ball, he was like the National Anthem. He made people stand up.”

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