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ATLANTA (AP) — Devin Hester gets a text every morning from Deion Sanders, usually with some sort of inspirational message.
"That's my alarm," Hester said. "When I get that text, I know it's time to get up."
Things were a little different Friday.
When Sanders delivered his latest message, it was to a friend and protege who now holds the NFL record for most return touchdowns all by himself.
Hester high-stepped into history — with Sanders watching from the sideline, no less — when he took a punt 56 yards to the end zone in the Atlanta Falcons' 56-14 blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The moment was especially poignant given their long friendship, going back to Hester's days at the University of Miami, and that it came at the Georgia Dome, the stadium where Sanders played a couple of years for the Falcons and famously proclaimed upon his return with a different team that it was "my house."
This is Hester's house.
"It is tough to break a record from a guy that holds it (who) is my number one mentor," he said. "He knew that if anyone was capable of breaking that record and he wanted anyone to break it, then it was going to be me."
The 20th return touchdown of Hester's career came midway through the second quarter Thursday night, with the Falcons already ahead 28-0. The Bucs inexplicably gave him a chance for the record, the ball settling into his hands at the 44. He burst through a seam in the middle of the field and suddenly found himself face to face with one last defender, punter Michael Koenen.
That was no contest.
Hester cut to his left, zipped around a diving Koenen and finished it off with a triumphant glide down the sideline. The last 10 yards or so, Hester broke into Sanders' trademark high-stepping move, the left hand cupped behind the ear hole of his helmet in tribute to his friend.
"It was great that Deion was here," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. "It's funny how things seem to work out."
Hester and Sanders shared an emotional moment afterward on the set of the NFL Network, where Sanders works as an analyst. Both teared up as they talked of their bond.
"I remember the beginnings," Sanders said. "I love you, man. I'm so proud of you."
Hester recalled the first call he got from Prime Time, back in his college days while the Hurricanes were getting ready for a game against North Carolina State.
"We were in a meeting," Hester said. "I had my phone in my pocket because somebody said you were going to call me. I felt my phone vibrating. I didn't even look at it. I just snuck out, went to the bathroom, and called you right back."
The 31-year-old Hester spent his first eight seasons with the Chicago Bears, where he scored on 13 punt returns, six kickoff returns and a 108-yard return of a missed field goal.
He signed with the Falcons (2-1) during the offseason, joining a team that saw him as more than a special teams ace. Through the first three games, Hester has seven catches for 126 yards, not to mention a 20-yard rushing touchdown against the Buccaneers on a reverse.
"The guys in that huddle, before we break, they are constantly saying, each and every one of them, 'Hey, just follow me, just follow me,'" Hester said. "It is a sign of good things to come. I am very happy to be here, happy that the Atlanta Falcons organization decided to pick me up as a free agent."
He was also pursued by the Buccaneers, who are now led by former Bears coach Lovie Smith.
If Sanders is Hester's mentor, then Smith is like a second father.
"I know I'm one of coach Lovie's favorites," Hester said. "I love that guy a lot. I told him before the game, 'Unfortunately, we're on opposite teams now, but the good part is if I get that record tonight, you'll be here to see it.' We both chuckled and laughed. He said, 'You're right, I want to see you do it in person.' It's tough to do it against him. I hate the way it went (in the game). At the same time, I'm kind of happy too."
Only one thing didn't go as Hester planned.
He wanted to give the ball to Sanders, but it will apparently land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I took the ball to the sideline," Hester said. "I heard it's on the way to Canton."
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