Hail Mary passes, knockout tackles, and deep throws down the sideline are all cool plays in football, but there's nothing quite as exciting as a kick return touchdown.
Whether it be a kickoff return or a punt return, football players put their amazing athletic ability on display as they weave in and out of tacklers, rushing down the field after receiving a kick. It takes speed to return kicks well, but it also takes field vision, anticipation, agility, and some video game-like juke moves.
There have been some amazing kick and punt returns in football over the years, here are the best of the best.
The longtime Chicago Bears return man forced teams to think hard about kicking him the ball—his electrifying speed and agility made him arguably the best kick returner of all time. Hester set the NFL record for most return touchdowns (combining kickoffs and punts) with 20 over the course of his career, and one of his best came in Super Bowl XLI—which was played in Miami, where Hester went to college—against the Indianapolis Colts.
Hester took the opening kickoff from his own 10-yard line and darted through the first wave of would-be tacklers with a fantastic juke step, and he was off—Hester made it 90 yards before anyone on the Colts touched him, but by then he was already in the endzone. The score marked the first time an opening kickoff was returned for a touchdown in Super Bowl history.
Kick return touchdown in the Super Bowl—does it get any more exciting than that? Jacoby Jones has had a few standout returns in his career, and this one against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII might be his most impressive. To start things off, Jones commited what many special teams coaches say is the biggest mistake for all return men—don’t take the ball out of the endzone if you catch it over five yards deep.
Well, in this case, it’s probably a good idea that Jones didn’t listen to that advice. The Lane College alum ratcheted up his speed at the 15-yard line and bursted through a small seam in between the 49ers special teams front line. From there it was a track meet—and no one could catch Jones. The score set records for the longest kickoff return and longest play in Super Bowl history.
Before Hester was torching NFL special teams units in the pros, he was making complete fools of his fellow college players while playing at the University of Miami. The Hurricanes star did some impressive work in the NFL, but his best return ever might be from his days at The U. Hester’s return against Duke was like a work of art—if there were a museum honoring returns in football, this one might be considered the “Mona Lisa” of punt returns. Hester danced his way around defenders like a true artist—cutting side to side, running backwards, spinning out of tackles—before breaking free and taking the ball into the endzone.
Before there was Devin Hester, there was Dante Hall. For a few years in the early 2000s with the Kansas City Chiefs, Hall electrified the NFL with his dynamic speed and hard-to-believe kick and punt returns. Hall was fast—he once recorded a 40-yard dash time of 4.29 seconds—and his slender frame at 5’8”, 187 pounds made it easy for him to slip around tacklers. “The Human Joystick” made video-game like moves on the field and one of his most impressive returns came against the Denver Broncos in 2003—the same season in which he set a record by returning a kickoff or a punt for a touchdown four games in a row.
Hall backpedaled as he caught a booming punt, and then proceeded to embarrass the entire special teams unit—Hall was nearly consumed by three Broncos players, but he juked in and out of the way to avoid them. And that wasn't even the most impressive part of the return. Hall started running backwards and crossed to the other side of the field, outrunning the entire Broncos unit before heading into the endzone untouched. Start the video below at 1:11 for the amazing return.
The longtime NFL cornerback made everyone look like a fool on this play while he was playing with the Los Angeles Rams. After a punt from the New Orleans Saints landed into the endzone, it appeared that the ball was going to bounce out of bounds, causing a touchback to the 20-yard line—but it didn’t. No one on the field noticed except for Bailey, who scooped up the ball and sped down the field completely untouched and unchallenged. The return marked the longest punt return touchdown in NFL history.
Talk about making an impact in your NFL debut. Green Bay Packers wideout Randall Cobb was anxious to get his pro career started—so anxious that he brought out a kickoff after receiving it eight yards deep in the end zone. While his special teams coach may have been upset, Cobb rewarded him with a dazzling play, using his 4.46-second 40-yard dash time to blaze by the New Orleans Saints defense. Making the play even more amazing: The Saints basically had Cobb wrapped up, but he was able to spin out, flipping nearly upside down—breaking multiple tackles along the way to the Packers win in his first ever NFL game.
The former Seattle Seahawks running back was ready to go on the opening kickoff of this game against the San Diego Chargers. Washington took the kick from one yard inside the endzone and proceeded to juke his way past the front line of the Chargers special teams unit. With just the kicker to beat, Washington pulled a fantastic stutter step to put him to the ground and ran his way into the endzone. Washington also returned a punt 99 yards for a touchdown later in that game, setting a team record with two return scores in the same game.
Have we mentioned this guy’s pretty good at returning kicks? Hester had himself quite the day against the St. Louis Rams back in 2006, returning two kicks for touchdowns in the game. The University of Miami alum was in his first season of the NFL, and he made the Rams pay for kicking him the ball. Hester blew through an open lane to go basically untouched into the endzone—high-stepping his way in all the way from the 20-yard line. The touchdown also helped Hester set an NFL record for the most return touchdowns by a player in a single season.
With this play against Tennessee in 2011, the Arkansas wide receiver and return specialist made the argument that he pulled off the best punt return in football history. Adams took one step back after receiving the kick and seemingly had nowhere to go as he got close to the right sideline—three Tennessee tacklers got right in his face—but instead of giving up, he changed direction and ran backwards (something coaches say never to do on punt returns). Adams slipped through a couple tackles and appeared to be at a dead end again—but with blazing speed he darted up the sideline and got a key block, sending him straight towards the end zone with nearly the entire Tennessee team chasing him, but all coming up short.
The Minnesota Vikings receiver was literally as far back into the endzone as he could be on an NFL field when he received this kickoff against the Green Bay Packers. Playing on Sunday Night Football in front of a national television audience, the ridiculously fast return man—he posted a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine—took the ball and ran straight up the middle of the field into what looked like a barrage of Packers players. Patterson somehow broke through the throng of tacklers and then it became a track meet—and he won. The return went for 109 yards, setting a record for the longest play in NFL history.
Down three points with just six seconds left in this ACC matchup against Duke, the Miami Hurricanes were in a desperate position—they needed to find a way to score a touchdown after a late score by the Blue Devils. After receiving the pooch kick at their own 25-yard line, Miami started lateraling the ball to keep it alive, eventually getting all the way back to their own 3-yard line before making their way upfield again. After a final lateral—making for eight laterals in total—all the way across to the opposite side field, the Hurricanes took the ball up the sideline and found wide open space, scoring the game-winning touchdown. Duke fans and players were absolutely stunned, and while after the fact it was ruled that the play should have been blown dead about 12 times—the result stood.