Treyvon Hester stood in front of his locker Thursday as if he were guarding it, his back turned to it, a horde of media members in front of him, his arms in a V across his chest, his hands clasped left over right.
Under the nail of his left thumb was a bruise, a purple-red smear the size of a penny. Hands are a defensive tackle's tools, and those tools go through so much use and wear that the man who wields them often doesn't notice the slightest damage to them, and Hester, 26, didn't seem to notice this. How did it happen? He couldn't say.
One thing was certain, though: He knew it didn't happen on the play for which everyone now recognizes his name, the instant he tipped Cody Parkey's 43-yard field-goal attempt to preserve the Eagles' 16-15 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field last Sunday night. He knew he'd deflected the kick immediately. He remembered the sensation of the ball's brushing against the three middle fingers on his left hand.
"Definitely, definitely," he said. "Grazed the fingertips."
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The questions kept coming, and it was easy to see that Hester was a little overwhelmed by all the attention. He had been reluctant to speak to reporters, members of the Eagles organization had said, because he didn't regard his play as any great achievement.
What had he done that was so special? He and the teammate next to him, Haloti Ngata, had pushed forward and put their hands up, and Parkey's kick had just so happened to touch Hester's fingers.
Now, reporters wanted to probe his mind and heart, and family members and friends and mentors were texting and calling every day, and someone was asking him, "How does your hand feel right now?" and Hester couldn't help but burst out laughing.
"That's a serious question?" he said. "It's good. It's good to go."
That laugh, that smile, had drawn people to Hester years ago, while he was a student and star football player at Penn Hills High School near Pittsburgh. In the spring, when the team held its offseason weight-room sessions, Hester sometimes wandered over to the school's baseball field. His phys ed teacher Ed Carr was Penn Hills' head baseball coach then.
"Just an awesome kid, infectious personality. Million-dollar smile. Lights up a room with those big cheeks. One of the best laughs you'll ever hear," Carr said in a phone interview. "In a lot of ways, we all looked at him as family. He was the only kid who would not be on my team, walk into our dugout, sit with us, and not get thrown out of the dugout."
Come on, Coach. The kid was 6-foot-3 and nearly 300 pounds. Who was throwing him anywhere? Especially with those meat-hook hands?
"He'd pick up a bat and say, 'I want to play baseball next year,' and it literally looked like a toothpick," Carr said. "I always told him, 'I'll put you on my team just so you can be the first person to step off a bus for an away game and intimidate all the other teams.' "
Hester was two years behind another fair defensive tackle – Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams, the NFL's 2017 defensive player of the year – at Penn Hills. The two still work out together in the offseason, and Hester still bounces questions off him from time to time, as he did back then.
Donald earned a full athletic scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, but Hester had a rougher path to college and into the University of Toledo's football program. He was an academic grayshirt, meaning that he had to pay his own way, through student loans and Pell Grants and a part-time job or two, throughout his first semester at Toledo and could not play, practice, or even interact officially with any of his coaches. Then, on April 2, 2013, after Hester had joined the program, his father, Anthony, died at 47 while waiting for a heart transplant.
"That was a brutal year, man," Hester said. "Went through a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff."
Jason Candle, Toledo's head coach, who as offensive coordinator had recruited Hester to the school, drove Hester and a few of his closest teammates to and from Pittsburgh for Anthony's funeral – four hours, 250 miles each way.
"I was wondering how this was going to go, because you never know how a young player is going to react," Candle said in a phone interview. "He just reassured me he was very thankful for the opportunity. He was going to prove to everybody that nobody had wasted their time on him and he was going to make the most out of this, and he's kept his word on that for sure."
There were more obstacles. He was a second-team all-Mid-American Conference selection as a senior, racking up 22 tackles and five sacks, but a shoulder injury postponed his pro day. The Oakland Raiders drafted him in the seventh round in 2017, then waived him last September. The Eagles signed him to their practice squad four days later, elevated him to the roster in October, and reaped their most meaningful benefit from him at the most meaningful moment of their season – that push, that reach, those fingertips that will live forever.
"It's definitely self-fulfilling," he said. "Basically, Philadelphia proved me right. They allowed me to show everybody what I can do. They gave me the time to adapt to the playing field and to learn this system and just go out and play to my best ability. I owe them everything."
In that moment, he said, he turned to track the flight of the ball, saw it on its path, and feared he had not gotten enough to keep it from floating through the uprights. He turned back around. He never saw the "double-doink," the ball's carom off the left upright and off the crossbar.
But he noticed the sudden and complete silence of the crowd, and he saw the Eagles stream on to the field, and only then did he know what he had done, for his team and for himself.