Devin Hester is smarter than the average Bear

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The Bears' offensive coordinator, once nicknamed ''Mad Mike,'' has been ''Muted Mike'' 7½ months into his job.
Mike Martz, who had soap-opera endings in his last three NFL jobs, has answered questions with the optimism and diplomacy of a U.N. delegate. But he grew impassioned when asked how receiver Devin Hester was grasping his complex offense.

To avoid any concern about context, here's the full text of Martz's response to my question.

''I just got to tell you this and get this off my chest: I've heard so much about Devin not being a receiver and he doesn't learn well, and none of that is true,'' Martz emphatically said. ''None of that is true.

''He's a natural at it. Everything comes natural to him -- the recognition and the change of direction. He's got a great way about him. He's a natural.

''Of all the receivers, he's made the fewest mistakes. So what does that say?

''For some reason, someone has put a tag on him like that, and it couldn't be the furthest thing from the truth, and that bothers me because he's the sweetest, kindest kid in the world and to have that on him, someone saying he can't learn?

''It's just not true.''

From afar, as the Minnesota Vikings beat writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, I remember Hester's immediate impact in the NFL. His remarkable return skills so flummoxed the Vikings that they often intentionally kicked the ball out of bounds, field position be damned, just so Hester didn't take one to the proverbial house. But when they switched him to receiver, rumors ran rampant that Hester wasn't smart enough to play the position.

So I -- one of the newest regulars on the Bears beat -- did the obvious: I asked key people that question. It prompted as strong a reaction as I've received on a story in quite some time. That shouldn't come as a surprise because questioning someone's intelligence is inevitably a hot-button topic.

''I don't even want to get into it. I get mad when I hear it,'' receivers coach Darryl Drake said. ''I don't even want to comment on that because it's so unfair. It's so unfair, and it's so untrue.

''That is a sore subject with me.''

Coach Lovie Smith wondered aloud how that perception even emerged.

''Who has said that? I don't know who 'they' is.

''We're not saying that. You talked to the position coach? Coordinator? Quarterback say it? Head coach say it? No one has said it. That's a non-issue. Devin has been outstanding picking things up.''

Smith noted that Hester has been a cornerback, a kickoff and punt returner and a receiver in his four previous NFL seasons.

''How many guys can [play] at corner and receiver?'' Smith said. ''He's picked up everything we've asked him to do.''

The emotions run deep for obvious reasons.

Part of it is because Hester is an athlete, saddled by the prevailing ''dumb jock'' image. It's also na1/8¯ve to not at least wonder if race is a factor. But when I broached the topic with Hester, he never mentioned race. He did say he was thrilled to hear his offensive coordinator come to his defense.

''I'm just happy to hear it from somebody I've been around,'' Hester said. ''For somebody who has really spent time with me, to say something like that ... the truth needs to be spoken.''

Hester somewhat can understand the impatience with his transition from cornerback to receiver, but he can't comprehend why anyone would question his intelligence.

''It bothers me a lot,'' he said. ''I guess people expect me to come in right away and be a receiver, even though I've never played it before.''
That Hester made the honor roll in high school and at the University of Miami doesn't validate his intellectual capacity. He doesn't have a degree from Miami having left school early, but he insisted that he plans to graduate someday.

For now, the premium is on his football smarts, and Martz said he has seen plenty of that. Hester, as Martz previously pointed out, has made the fewest mistakes of any receiver. And four-time Pro Bowl receiver Isaac Bruce said Hester was smart to reach out to him.

Bruce has been impressed with how Hester has handled the offense, including the adjustments.

''He's where he's supposed to be,'' Bruce said, ''with all the other receivers.''

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