Hester says Bears are ‘parting ways’ with record-setting returner

CHICAGO — Record-setting returner Devin Hester said Wednesday he will not be back with the Chicago Bears next season.

“From my knowledge, I know that Chicago wants to go a different route with me,” Hester told the NFL Network. “All I can say is thanks to the fans for their support. They’ve always been great to me. Always been loyal. I couldn’t have played for a better city than those guys. At the end of my career, I do want to retire as a member of the Bears.”

He added the Bears are “parting ways” with him. The team declined comment.

It looks as if Hester will hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent after an eight-year run with the Bears that produced no shortage of highlights.

He matched Hall of Famer Deion Sanders’ NFL record with his 19th return for a touchdown last season, tying his friend and mentor with an 81-yard punt return at Washington in October. It was Hester’s 13th punt return for a TD, extending his own record in that category.

He has also returned five kickoffs and one missed field goal for touchdowns.

A three-time Pro Bowl pick, Hester is best remembered by Bears fans for returning the opening kickoff in the 2007 Super Bowl for a touchdown. He ran it back 92 yards for a score in a game the Bears went on to lose to Indianapolis.

Hester endured several lulls on returns during his career, particularly when the Bears tried to make him a receiver. But he showed some of his old form while focusing solely on returns last season.

His touchdown return against Washington was his first in nearly two years. Hester led the NFL with a career-high 1,436 kick return yards on a league-high 52 tries, and he returned five kickoffs for a team-record 249 yards against Minnesota in September.

Now, it looks like he’s moving on.

Hester expressed interest in reuniting with former coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay.

“I look at Lovie as my number one coach right now because he’s the one that took a chance on me coming out of the draft,” Hester said. “He has all my respect so if he’s a guy that is going to shoot at me and want me to come play with him again, my arms are open.”

The news from Hester comes on the same day the Bears terminated the contract of punter Adam Podlesh and signed defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff to a two-year deal.

A four-time Pro Bowl pick, Ratliff started four of the five games he played in after signing with Chicago in November. He spent the first six weeks with Dallas on the physically unable to perform list before being released in mid-October, with the Cowboys saying he failed a physical. Ratliff missed the final six games in 2012 with a groin injury that required surgery.

The Bears, who had one of their worst defensive seasons ever, saw enough good things to bring him back.

Ratliff had 141/2 tackles and 11/2 sacks with Chicago. In nine seasons with the Cowboys and Bears, he has 331½ tackles and 281/2 sacks.

The Bears have signed 10 players who were due to become unrestricted free agents March 11, most of any team in the NFL.

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