The one thing the University of Miami has been able to hold onto even through the tough times in the mid 1990s and the more recent mediocre run are the faces that shine on Sundays in the NFL.
In the 1980s and 1990s it wasn't hard to spot The U. If it wasn't Vinny Testaverde under center or Michael Irvin hauling in passes for the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, it was linebackers like Micheal Barrow or defensive lineman like Warren Sapp who would pop up on SportsCenter. This decade, its been players like the Ravens Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, tight end Jeremy Shockey and the great Edgerrin James who have carried the torch.
Several former Canes greats are entering transition points in their careers. Willis McGahee, who ran for the fewest yards in his career last season (631), is in a crowded Baltimore backfield. Kellen Winslow is starting fresh with Tampa Bay. Of course, there still is Clinton Portis, who will always draw cameras with his profound characters. But he's entering his eighth season. There is Andre Johnson, who is arguably the most physical and talented receiver in the game. But AJ isn't a guy loves the spotlight beyond Sundays.
So who can hande the glitz and glamour beyond 2010? Right now nobody might be able to carry it better for the Canes than Devin Hester. Remember him? The guy who UM coaches couldn't figure out how to use, but who broke the NFL record for kick returns with the Bears and opened Super Bowl XLI by taking one back on the Colts? He's about to blow up some more. When ESPN televises the ESPY's Sunday, Under Armour will unveil another 30-second commercial that shows us a day in the life through Hester's eyes.
It's obviously meant to help Under Armour sell its brand name. But Randy Shannon and the Canes should be happy because its going to help sell The U too (have you seen how many kids are wearing Under-Armour these days?) At the very least, commercials with former Hurricane stars can help combat some of the stuff that's been happening lately (like the Gators winning two national championships in three years, the Canes first round draft streak ending and that whole 12-13 run).
Anyway, I caught up with Hester for about 10 minutes over the phone Wednesday after I flew back in from the All-Star Game in St. Louis. It's the first time I had spoken to him since his rookie season at the Super Bowl. Hester, who was out in L.A. for the ESPYs, is now 26, engaged and expecting to become a father for the first time soon. And, on the football field, he feels he's ready to become much more than just an electrifying return man. With the new Bears quarterback Jay Cutler at the helm, Hester believes he could become the game's most explosive deep threat.
"I'm definitely very excited about this season," said Hester, who caught 51 passes for 665 yards and three scores in his third NFL season. "I'm really understanding the offensive side of the ball now and I'm expecting to have a lot of success. My biggest obstacle was that I really hadn't played receiver at all before. I played there just twice when I was at The U. With a guy like Jay Cutler throwing the ball, I feel like I'm going to be even better."
Here's what else we talked about.
Q: This obviously isn't your first commercial. Everyone remembers the Madden commercial from last year. In this one, you get to hang out with your friend Deion Sanders. How is this one different and how has your life been different since you showed the world what you can do with that return in the Super Bowl?
A: "This commercial is really more about me and what I do, every day life. I had a lot of fun doing it, especially with Prime. My life has definitely changed, though. I can't go into a place anymore without somebody noticing me and having to sign autographs. It's been good though. It's a humbling experience."
Q: You know The U has been struggling lately. Have you been hearing it more in the locker room from other NFL guys? And what do you and [Bears teammate] Greg Olsen usually tell people when they mess with the Canes?
"We've definitely been hearing it -- especially from those Gators. I just tell them the same thing. We got this. Our guys are young, freshmen, sophomore, but they're good. Real good. Things are going to change soon and they better be careful what they say. I'm definitely ready to do some talking of my own."
Q: Have you been to The U recently and spoken with any of the freshmen receivers? There's a young guy there now, Travis Benjamin, who is from Palm Beach County and has that same blazing speed -- even the same hair style -- you have. Talk to him?
"I haven't had a chance yet. But I definitely want to. I've heard a lot about him. I'll be down there to see [Andreu] Swasey and those guys before the season, I hope to catch up with him then."
Q: Some of the older former Canes -- Ray Lewis, Edge -- are nearing the end of their careers. Do you feel like you have to carry the torch on Sundays at all for the Canes going forward?
"There a lot of Canes still doing their thing. Great players all around the league. I just want to be able to do what I can. People are watching you all the time, so you have to do the right things. If I can be someone to look up to, an example for the Canes, then I'll do it. We're still The U. We'll be back."