When the ball is in Devin Hester’s hands, the game of football opens up and flowers. A sport that has entangled itself in ever more complicated strategies over the decades becomes again simple and beautiful. It returns to its origins, a man with the ball trying to elude all others. No wonder every punt and kickoff brings calls to come watch. At home, in a bar, or on site at Soldier Field, this is no time for a bathroom break. This is not to be missed.

It was one thing when he was doing it at the University of Miami–see him now in the “Devin Hester Anytime” collection of highlights on YouTube–but it’s quite another to watch him outclass NFL players as well. These are the fastest athletes for their size–and in many cases the orneriest–in the world. Even so, with the opponents focusing everything on stopping him, Hester finds a way to run free. It’s what he did with the opening kickoff of the last Super Bowl, what he did when he almost tiptoed through the punt coverage before exploding into the open for an 89-yard touchdown last week against the Minnesota Vikings, and what he did to score on an 81-yard bomb from Brian Griese to briefly tie that game in the final minute and a half. The Bears’ radio play-by-play man, Jeff Joniak, has put it best: “Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!”

Unfortunately, Bears fans have never been comfortable with offensive pyrotechnics. They like bone-crushing defense, because defense means winning, or at least losing with honor. The wonders of a Gale Sayers scoring six touchdowns or Walter Payton rushing for 275 yards in a single afternoon in otherwise unmemorable campaigns offer little solace by comparison. Bears fans like hitting, and for them the pleasure of seeing someone elude that hitting–even one of their own players–is fleeting.

So while Bears fans expected quarterback Rex Grossman to fail after his increasingly flighty performances last season, right up through the Super Bowl, and were willing to throw him under the bus once Griese, his backup, had rallied the Bears to a win in Green Bay against the archrival Packers and almost pulled off that comeback against the Vikes, it was the plight of the defense that really hurt. It was the defense that let the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Romo go wild in the home loss the third week of the season, signaling that things this year would not go the way they did last. It was the defense that one week later gave up an incredible 34 points in the fourth quarter in Detroit, the defense that put the Bears in a hole in the first half in Green Bay, and the defense that couldn’t stop Vikes’ rookie Adrian Peterson from running for 224 yards against the Bears’ vaunted linemen and linebackers, making safeties Adam Archuleta, Brandon McGowan, and Danieal Manning, though not Hester, look ridiculous.

The thing about Hester is that as a return man he can be avoided. The Philadelphia Eagles proved that Sunday by kicking away from him. He didn’t have a single return yard all day. The result was a game that reduced coach Lovie Smith’s team to the Bears of the Dick Jauron era. The defense bent, but at first refused to break. The Eagles were dominating the first half in time of possession, but a pair of field goals gave them only a 6-0 lead. Peering out of his helmet, shoulder pads hunched, Griese–who bears a striking resemblance to Steppenwolf’s Gary Cole–looks less like a quarterback than an actor playing a quarterback. But he rallied the Bears with a couple of nice passes to tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olson, and Chicago got on the scoreboard with a field goal toward the end of the half. The defense gave it right back and the Eagles led 9-3 at intermission.

The Bears began to win this game of attrition in the second half. Griese drove them for three more field goals–the last after a pair of Tommie Harris sacks had helped earn them good field position–to put the Bears up, 12-9, but then the defense, which had bent throughout the day, broke in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb caught them in zone defenses time and again and found receivers in the open spots, finishing a drive with a touchdown toss between, of course, the safeties to tight end Matt Schobel. The teams exchanged possessions but the Eagles gained field position, and–again kicking away from Hester–they punted the ball out of bounds at the Bears’ three-yard line with a minute and a half to play.

What happened next–well, it cheered Bears fans, no doubt about it, but it hardly chased their angst. Griese marched the Bears the length of the field, with Hester making a couple of key catches and acting as a decoy on other plays, including the touchdown toss to Muhsin Muhammad in the back of the end zone. The Bears had already stolen a win in Green Bay, and they stole this one, 19-16, to keep their season alive at 3-4. Staying alive was nothing much to boast about, not with the defense scuffling and Hester’s big-play game neutralized. But if Griese’s heroics cemented Grossman’s place on the bench, that was something a fan could hang his big, furry, growling, ear-flapped Bears hat on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Devin Hester photo by AP Photo/M. Spencer Green.