Maybe it was watching his 33-year-old father lose a year-long battle with cancer when he was just 12. Maybe it was knowing he nearly lost his mother, too, in a car accident that left her with severe neck and back injuries, unable to work for three years. Until he was 18, University of Miami speedster Devin Hester said, he woke up nearly every night crying, tormented by nightmares.
As he plowed through adolescence, hardship taught him two things: Keep fighting and dream huge. Juanita Brown, who limped along with a walker to many of her son's youth league football games before making a full recovery, did not tolerate complaining, reminding Hester that no matter how bad the day was, a new one would come. Jimmie Bell, his football coach at Suncoast High in Riviera Beach, Fla., recalls Hester's eyes welling up when he told him during his senior year, "Your dad is smiling on you, baby."
Indeed, when Hester had a football in his hands, it seemed he was.
Since his first days in pads in a midget league, the hope and opportunity that seemed scarce in life flowed freely on the football field. That's been the case even this year with the No. 9 Hurricanes, who meet No. 11 Virginia Tech at the Orange Bowl Saturday with the ACC title and the accompanying BCS bowl berth at stake. During a season in which Hurricane Frances crushed his mother's car, ripped a hole in her living room ceiling and destroyed most of her furniture -- her phone still isn't working, plastic tarp covers the hole in the roof and she hasn't gotten a cent from her insurance company -- Hester has emerged as one of the most exciting and dangerous players in college football.
"Once I get the ball in my hands, I have that mentality that I cannot be stopped," said Hester, who stands 5 feet 11 and weighs 185 pounds.
Against the Hokies, Hester will play on offense, defense and special teams. If earlier games are any guide -- Miami Coach Larry Coker refuses to tell -- Hester could line up at wide receiver, fullback, tailback, cornerback, safety and on the punt return, kickoff return, coverage and kick-blocking teams. He has returned one kickoff and three punts for touchdowns and rushed for another. He has intercepted three passes and blocked one field goal attempt, a crucial one in Miami's opening victory against Florida State.
About his first punt return for a touchdown, a 51-yard burst against Louisiana Tech, Hester said, "It really didn't even seem real. It seemed fake. It was so easy."
Hester's scores have been so routinely spectacular opposing coaches haven't allowed him to field a good punt or kickoff for weeks. His play has been so multi-dimensional, his childhood hero Deion Sanders, an alum of enemy Florida State, called him before the Nov. 13 victory over Virginia, telling him he wanted to be his mentor and would meet with him in the spring. Hester, who had three posters of Sanders in his room as a child, described the call as magical.
"What he brings to the game is instant offense, the possibility of instant points," Miami center Joel Rodriguez said. "It isn't so much his speed -- there are probably 10 guys on our team who can run a 4.3 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) or better. The thing with him is how quickly he gets to top speed. He gets from stationary to full speed in like five yards."
Miami's commentators have nicknamed him "Anytime," a play on Sanders' "Prime Time" moniker. But at home in Riviera Beach, Hester acknowledged, they have a much more mundane nickname for him: Mama's Boy.
Hester speaks by cell phone every night to his mother, who divorced the late Lenoris Hester Sr. in Hester's youth and remarried Derrick Brown. She drives the 50 or so miles south to attend each Hurricanes home game and watches the road games on the television in her bedroom. She estimates she threw out $5,000 worth of crushed, soaked or mildewed furniture and carpeting after the late summer storm, one of three hurricanes to pummel the region. The Jeep she drove on her mail route was flattened by a tree and hasn't been replaced, so she uses a regular car for work.
But, Hester said, his mother hasn't lamented the situation once.
"She's the type of person who's always positive," he said. "Nothing negative ever comes out of her mouth."
Though Hester said he ached after his father's death, watching all of the other kids' dads picking them up at school, he knew it was his mother he most resembled.
"She's very stubborn," he said with a smile, still soaked with sweat after a Hurricanes practice this week. "When she sets her mind to something, no matter what you tell her, she is going to go out and get it."
After the '93 car accident that required her to be airlifted to a hospital in Palm Beach County, Brown spent weeks in bed, depending on her sons, Devin and Lenoris Hester Jr., now 22, and daughter Keaundra Brown, 17, for assistance even in going to the bathroom. She was not paralyzed, but the function of her limbs was hampered because of injuries to the vertebrae and disks in her back. At first, she wore a brace on her neck and an assortment of bandages.
"It was just bad," Devin said. "When it's your own mom laying in bed like that, it really hurts. She was just in so much pain."
Until Brown recovered, the family depended on the salary of Hester's stepfather, a skycap at the Palm Beach airport. The coaches on Hester's sports teams drove him to practice when he didn't have a ride.
"It was a hard time," Hester said. "We were not really getting what we wanted; we had to settle for what we needed."
As Brown healed, Hester's natural father, a former track star with whom Devin and Lenoris spent each weekend, found out he had terminal cancer. He sat his boys down and told them he loved them. But, he said, one day soon they would not see him for a long, long time.
"Get an education," Lenoris Hester Sr. instructed both boys, Devin Hester recalled. "Do the best that you can."
Hester said he intends to stay in school, respecting his father's wishes. As for doing his best, he said, that means being the best.
"I see myself, two years from now, being in college and just dominating," Hester said. "Dominating on every play, making plays left and right."