Outside of a wild, game-ending, lateral-filled Hail Mary to end a game, there is no single play more exciting in football than a successful kick return. For starters, kick-returners have got to be a little screwed up to do what they do. On a kickoff, 10 players are barrelling down on you at breakneck speed (and the kicker) with the intention of knocking your head into the nosebleed seats of the stadium - and it's even worse during a punt return, because if a gunner times his run right, he could get a good shot in on a punt returner who isn't paying attention.
If the returner does manage to escape the wrath of the opposing special teams, it means he's out there looking The Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote - zipping through the grasp of opposing players and zagging through packs of massive bodies en route to the endzone.
For as wild and haphazard as the whole thing looks, kick returning is in fact a beautiful art form within the rugged game of football. It takes incredible vision, razor sharp instincts, animal-like reflexes and enough speed to outrun a gazelle. Put all that together and you have the perfect returner.
Over the years, there have been plenty of return-men who have come and gone. Some have flashed with a TD return here and there, while others caved under the enormous pressure of the position.
There were a select few, though, who took the art of kick-returning and transformed it into a masterpiece. While kick returners are usually considered an afterthought, the names on this list earned a reputation as the most electrifying players of their era - so talented that they alone were worth tuning in to their teams on game day.
15 Michael Bates
Michael Bates is remembered strictly as a kick-returner (he only returned 10 punts for a measly 44 yards). In his 10 years as a kick-returner though, Bates was productive, scoring five return touchdowns and averaging 24.4 yards per return - including a stellar 30.2 average in 1996 while with the Carolina Panthers. Bates was electrifying enough in the return game to earn a spot on the list, but his lack of punt return ability hinders his ranking severely.
14 Eric Metcalf
Eric Metcalf is better remembered for his abilities as punt returner than as a kick returner (he held the all-time record for punts returned for a touchdown with 10 until it was broken by Devin Hester). Metcalf was no slouch in the kick return game, though, as he returned two kicks for TDs during his career and racked up a total of 5,813 kick return yards and a 20.8 yards per return average. He wasn't a scoring machine, but he was productive.
13 Rick Upchurch
Upchurch, like Metcalf, was more productive as a punt-returner. He sits tied for fourth all-time with eight punts returned for touchdowns throughout his career. He spent his entire nine years in the NFL handling kicks for the Denver Broncos - his most productive season came in 1976, when he returned four punts for TDs to go along with his 13.2 yards per return average. One of his punts returned for a score in that season was a 92-yarder - something practically unheard of in today's NFL.
12 Jacoby Jones
Jacoby Jones's return skills will forever be overshadowed by his run-in with Mike Tomlin on the Steelers sideline last season, but it's important to remember how good Jones is when he doesn't have to worry about avoiding meddling coaches. Jones is a versatile return man, totalling nine career touchdown returns (four punts and five kickoffs). His most memorable score came during Super Bowl XLVII when he brought a kick back to the house 109-yards to start the second half and spur the Ravens towards a championship.
11 Desmond Howard
Desmond Howard was supposed to be remembered more for his abilities as a wideout and less for his game-breaking ability in the return game - alas, Howard will never land on a list of great pass catchers, but his eight punt return touchdowns (tied for fourth all-time) and career 22.2 yards per kick return land him a spot on this list. Howard's biggest contribution as a special teams player came during Super Bowl XXXI, when he won the game's MVP for his 244 total return yards and kick return touchdown while playing for Green Bay.
10 Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell holds the title as the return yardage return king - he is the all-time leader in categories such as kick return yardage, with 14,014 yards, and punt return yardage, with 4,999 yards. Mitchell was also adept at getting the ball in the end zone. He finished his illustrious career as a return specialist with nine punt return TDs and four kick return TDs. Mitchell was an all-purpose yardage legend, ranking second all-time with 23,316 yards, behind only Jerry Rice.
9 Mel Gray
Mel Gray earned a living as a return specialist in the NFL for 11 years, and during his career he managed to put up the third highest number of career kick return touchdowns of all time. Gray had several extraordinary years as a returner - he led the league in kick return average in 1991 (25.8 yards per return) and 1994 (28.4 yards per return), while also leading the league with three kicks returned for touchdowns in 1994. Gray was solid as a punt-returner too, with three career punt-return touchdowns.
8 Billy Johnson
Billy "Whiteshoes" Johnson might be better remembered for his unique touchdown celebrations, but what he should be remembered for was his ability to get in the end zone after fielding a kick. Johnson finished his brilliant career as a return specialist with six punt return touchdowns and two kick return scores, while leading the league in punt return yards per attempt twice (1975 & 1977). Johnson's earned a spot on the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team as a punt returner - not bad for a guy who was taken in the 15th round of the draft.
7 Josh Cribbs
Josh Cribbs was one of the pioneers of the new "crop" or "breed" of returners in the NFL. Cribbs made a name for himself as a dangerous return man with the Cleveland Browns. He topped 1,000 kick return yards five consecutive times to start his NFL career, and even led the league in all-purpose yards in 2007. Cribbs has slowed considerably since his glory days. At least he can fondly remember his three punt return and eight kick return touchdowns (tied for first all-time).
6 Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers was not in the NFL for very long, but he managed to make his mark in several ways while he was around. Sayers is the all-time leader in average yards per kick return with a whopping 30.6, and is tied for third all-time with six kick return touchdowns. He only returned kicks for five of his seven seasons with the Chicago Bears, so it's possible that Sayers would have climbed even higher up the record books had his career lasted longer. Sayers also returned two punts for touchdowns, and led the league in all-purpose yards each season from 1965-1967.
5 Ollie Matson
Ollie Matson is not a familiar name to a new generation of football fans, but for those who remember the 50's and 60's remember Matson as that era's "offensive weapon". A player with the ability to contribute in multiple facets of the game. Matson finished with nine return touchdowns (three punts and six kicks). Notable numbers include Matson's remarkable punt return line in 1955, when he led the league in punt return yards, average yards per punt, and punts returned for touchdowns, as well as a sparkling 35.5 yards per kick return average in 1958.
4 Leon Washington
Let's all be honest here: Leon Washington didn't look like a kick-returner. He looked like the guy you'd hand the ball to if you wanted to plod forward for a first down on 4th & inches. As we all know, looks can be deceiving - Washington ended up being one of the best returners of all time. He holds the record - along with Josh Cribbs - for career kick-returns for scores with eight, and never averaged less that 24 yards a kick return during his "prime" seasons as a returner.
3 Dante Hall
It would be close, but if there ever happens to another list looking at the most electrifying kick returners of all-time, Dante Hall would no doubt be in the discussion for first on the list. Even though his most of his production only came over six seasons with the Chiefs, there is no denying Hall's talent. He retired with six punt return scores and six kick return scores, and was the NFL's all-purpose yards leader in 2003 and 2004.
2 Deion Sanders
Deion Sanders did it all on the football field; if he wasn't returning interceptions for scores, he was returning punts and kicks for scores. "Primetime" was one of the best of all time, a label justified by his six punt return scores and three kick return scores. Sanders was frequently busting off huge chunks of yardage in the return game, made all the more impressive by the fact that he was excelling at it while also being one the league's premier defensive players of his era.
1 Devin Hester
Did you really think there was a chance anyone else was going to be at the top of this list?
Devin Hester is the undisputed champion of the world when it comes to returning kicks. He holds the record with 20 total touchdowns (14 punts, good for first all time, and six kicks). Hester was (and still is, to a certain extent) a returner who was feared when he trotted out onto the field to receive a kick. There are few players in the history of the sport who have had the kind of game-breaking ability Devin Hester has brought to the NFL over his 9-year career.