Since the moment he first bore the uniform of the San Francisco 49ers, Garrison Hearst was one of the most electrifying players in the NFL. Unfortunately, a horrific ankle injury in the 1998 playoffs nearly cost him his career. Hearst spent the next two years on the sidelines, quietly working his way back on the field. His comeback inspired his teammates and fans alike. This is his story.
Gerard Garrison Hearst was born on January 4, 1971 in Lincolnton, Georgia. After a record breaking career at Lincoln County High School, Hearst accepted a scholarship to the University of Georgia which has had a long history of producing talented running backs. As a freshman in 1990, Hearst rushed for 717 yards and scored five touchdowns. He was even better as a sophomore, averaging 6.3 yards per carry while gaining 968 yards and scoring nine touchdowns.
As a junior, he averaged 6.8 yards per carry while gaining 1,547 yards on the ground, 324 through the air and scoring 21 total touchdowns. At the end of the year, he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting and was second in Georgia history with yards rushing (3,232), all-purpose yardage (3,934) and 100-yard games (16). At this point he decided that he had done all that he could do in college and decided to forgo his senior season, declaring himself eligible for the 1993 NFL Draft. His status as a consensus All-American helped him get drafted third overall by the Phoenix Cardinals.
As a rookie, Garrison Hearst only appeared in six games, gaining 264 yards on the ground and scoring one touchdown. Things were even worse in 1994, with him carrying the ball just 37 times in eight games. He had his breakout season in 1995, rushing for 1,070 yards and receiving an additional 243 yards. After that season, he was cut by the Cardinals and signed with the woeful Cincinnati Bengals. Despite running behind a porous offensive line, Garrison Hearst rushed for 847 yards. His performance in 1996 caught the eye of the 49ers who traded for him before the 1997 season. Hearst was soon to find out what it was like to play for a contender.
When Garrison Hearst joined the 49ers, the team had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL featuring players such as Kevin Gogan, Jesse Sapolu and Chris Dalman. The team still had Jerry Rice but he was hurt for much of the year with a torn ACL. Quarterback Steve Young was searching for his next Super Bowl ring and hoped that Hearst was the missing piece to a championship run.
He had his finest season to date, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and gaining 1,019 yards on the ground while scoring six total touchdowns. The 49ers claimed home field advantage throughout the playoffs and defeated Minnesota in the first round. Unfortunately, Garrison Hearst had been inactive since the 14th game of the year and barely contributed in a loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game the following week. It would be the closest he would ever get to the Super Bowl.
The following year was a magical one for Garrison Hearst. After becoming the first active athlete to grace the cover of Madden, Hearst became a legend in San Francisco in the opening week of the 1998 season. Tied in overtime against the New York Jets, the 49ers were backed up on their own four-yard line. The 49ers needed to get some room to effectively run their offense and elected to go with a play designed to only gain a few yards, nothing more. However, the 49ers offensive ran the play to perfection and Garrison Hearst ran 96 yards for the winning touchdown run. The fans in San Francisco went wild in celebration and adoration for their new hero. Hearst would go on to gain 2,105 total yards while setting a franchise record with 1,570 yards on the ground. At the end of the season, he earned his first Pro Bowl invitation.
The 49ers won a lot of games the rest of the season, but they could not stop Atlanta from taking the division, making the 49er a Wild Card team. In the first round of the playoffs they played against the Packers who had haunted them in the playoffs since 1995. Hearst redeemed himself from the previous year, rushing 22 times for 128 valuable yards. Finally with the game in the balance, Steve Young zipped a pass to Terrell Owens who caught the game winning score. The next week in Atlanta, Garrison Hearst carried the ball once in the first quarter and broke his fibula. While the 49ers would go on to lose by two points, no one could possibly imagine that Garrison Hearst would not play a down of football for the next two years, nor could they imagine the once great dynasty crumbling under the weight of injury, retirement and free agency.
A broken fibula takes time to heal but Garrison Hearst’s injury was unique. In addition to a broken leg, he also suffered circulatory complications which prevented sufficient blood flow to the injured area. Known as necrosis, eventually it caused that area to die. It is similar to the hip injury which caused Bo Jackson to retire. Early on in the recovery process, a specialist advised Hearst to prepare for life without football. This lit a flame inside of him and Garrison Hearst decided at that moment to prove the specialist wrong.
Initially thought to be just a broken ankle, an MRI soon confirmed the necrosis. Over the next 32 months as the 49ers suffered through two losing seasons while adjusting to life after the recently retired Steve Young and the recently departed Jerry Rice, Garrison Hearst was going through a trial all on his own. Seven surgeries and an unshakable faith empowered Hearst to keep fighting the good fight. In May of 2000, his talus bone was degenerating and he was in danger of the bones in his ankle having to be fused together.
However, Dr. Pierce Scranton had a solution. The Seattle-based specialist had treated injuries similar to Hearst’s by breaking the ankle near the top, cleaning out the decaying parts and inserting plugs grafted from another part of the patient’s body. The surgery in early May of 2000 was a success with surgeons moving bone and cartilage from Hearst’s right knee to his ankle. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery in January of 2001, Garrison Hearst was on his way to a full recovery. Through the whole process of recovery, Hearst never stopped believing that one day he would suit up again in the NFL.
Sure enough, on September 9, 2001, Garrison suited up against the Atlanta Falcons, still a member of the 49ers. Rushing 14 times for 48 yards, Hearst helped San Francisco pull away with a 16-13 victory. Over the course of the season, Garrison Hearst would continue to impress as he averaged 4.8 yards per carry while rushing for 1,206 yards, receiving 347 yards and scoring five total touchdowns. For his efforts after such a long journey to recovery, Hearst earned the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award and earned his second Pro Bowl berth. His teammates voted him as the recipient of the Len Eshmont Award for his courageous and inspirational play. Though the 49ers would go on to lose to the Packers in the first round of the playoffs, Garrison Hearst’s season had been nothing short of a mighty triumph over seemingly impossible odds.
In Garrison Hearst’s final two years in San Francisco, he failed to rush for over 1,000 yards in either year and never again made the Pro Bowl. However his 972 yards on the ground and nine total touchdowns in 2002 helped the 49ers win their division. While the 49ers came back from a 24-point deficit to beat the New York Giants in the first round of the playoffs, Garrison Hearst was a non factor, only rushing six times for 15 yards. The next week in a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hearst rushed ten times for 55 yards.
The following year, after rushing for 768 yards and scoring four touchdowns, Garrison Hearst was released due to budgetary reasons. After playing in seven games for the Denver Broncos in 2004, Garrison Hearst retired. He finished his career with 7,966 yards rushing and 39 total touchdowns.