Return men in the NFL rarely get their just due from those that cover the league. They're often looked upon as athletic specialists that are not impact players at a true primary position. Chicago's Devin Hester and Buffalo's Roscoe Parrish however, are changing that conversation.
In one of the more anticipated returner matchups, Hester, who leads the NFC in punt return average (16.7) and Roscoe Parrish, who leads the AFC (11.4) will square off Sunday when the Bills host the Bears at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
What makes the meeting all the more intriguing is Parrish and Hester are close friends dating back to their days as teammates at the University of Miami where they split return duties in their two seasons together.
"The first year he got there I was the guy on punt returns and they were trying to fit him in because he was such an athlete," said Parrish. "They didn't know whether to put him at receiver or DB. During my junior year we rotated because he had a big role at defensive back and I had a big role at receiver. Coach would make the call based on how our reps went during the game. Sometimes we'd do it amongst ourselves and we'd switch off every other one."
"He was there before me," said Hester. "He kind of showed me what the coaches expect. He said, 'You're blessed with talent,' and you've got to go out and have fun and do what you feel comfortable with."
Parrish had three returns for touchdowns for the Hurricanes. Hester doubled that figure with six by the time his college career was over (2 kickoff, 4 punt). Not much has changed in the NFL as Hester has already matched the NFL all-time touchdown return mark of 13 (9 punt, 4 kickoff) set by Brian Mitchell in just his fifth season. Two of those touchdowns have come this year.
Meanwhile Parrish has three return touchdowns in his NFL career, all on punts. Where the Bills return man has the edge on Hester, however is in punt return average. Parrish is tied for third in NFL history with a 12.2 average, with Hester ranking eighth in league annals at 11.9.
The only other active player within striking distance of them is another Miami alum, Santana Moss (11.3).
Hester and Parrish keep in touch via text during the season.
"We might send each other a text or two, but not back and forth much," said Parrish. "We do enough of that in the offseason and talk trash to each other."
"We're still close," said Hester. "We've been texting each other back and forth. He texted me a couple times this year. I texted him a couple times, just congratulating him on some of the games he had, and the same from him."
It's clear that Parrish, despite being the older of the two, has great respect for what Hester has done as a returner in the NFL having tied the all-time return touchdown mark.
"It's always good to watch a guy like Devin Hester and see what kind of things he's going to do," said Parrish. "We don't want him to do well against us, but we know he's a good return guy. I even went in the coverage teams meeting (Wednesday) morning and watched him even though I wasn't supposed to be in there just to keep tabs on him and see how he does what he does. He is one of the best guys in the league on punt returns, so you just take notes on him."
But the respect is clearly mutual between these two Florida natives.
"We're kind of similar. We both make a lot of guys miss. We're both quick and fast, electrifying, that type of thing," Hester said. "He's real quick, I've got to give him that. He's real quick, like a cat. He can stop a dime and make a lot of guys miss."
That playmaking ability was reserved for special teams duties only for both Hester and Parrish early in their careers. This season however, both have been given the largest roles they've ever had on the offensive side of the ball.
"It takes an offensive-minded coach for that to happen," said Parrish. "The Bears have Mike Martz and then I have Chan Gailey and so it just takes the right coaching and you've got to keep working. I promise you every punt returner or kick returner wants to play offense or have a primary position. We love returning, but that just opens up doors to play other positions."
Despite their expanded roles, both appear to be hitting their stride at the midway point of the season on returns. Hester has a pair of touchdown returns for 62 and 89 yards with the most recent coming in a Week 6 matchup with Seattle.
"Lately he has been on his game, back to the point where every time he touches the football we're expecting him to score," said Bears head coach Lovie Smith. "Teams are starting to kick away from him, giving him the respect that the all-time guy with returns in the history of the league should get."
Parrish, in the last two games in which he has been able to field a return, has broken off a pair of 20-plus yard returns with a 26 yarder against Jacksonville and a 33-yard return at Kansas City.
"I know he and Devin will have a little something going on seeing who is the best returner from Miami," said Smith. "I just know that (Parrish) is a special returner, too. The play he made late last week in the game against the Chiefs almost put them in position to win the football game. We respect his game, I'll just tell you that."
Teams have been trying to pin Parrish along the sideline or simply kick it over his head into the end zone for a touchback or out of bounds over the sideline. The biggest challenge for the Bills return specialist is to remain patient for that one opportunity to really break one.
"That one is going to come," said Parrish. "You don't know when though, which is why you have to be patient."
That may prove harder when facing a friendly foe knowing bragging rights are on the line.
"At the end of the day you want to out-do your opponent," said Hester. "At receiver and punt returner you want to out-do your opponent. That's the mentality I'm going to have going into this game. I want to out-do my opponent. Whatever he does, I want to do it better."
"That's the kind of competition we have in this game," said Parrish. "We have two guys that are elite at their position and when they play against each other the fans want to see what each of them has. That's what makes it fun."
And those in attendance for Sunday's game will be the ones that will benefit.