In the waning moments of December as the San Francisco 49ers left 3-Com Park utterly frustrated and defeated at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks 24-17, the boo’s that echoed throughout the stands knifed bitterly into each player’s soul. Disapproval from their beloved fans at home was something that was not a very common denominator throughout the season.

Hearing it with clarity after this game served notice to them that this kind of performance is unacceptable by all standards. Fans have grown increasingly pessimistic in the face of so much uncertainty and facts that are printed in bold black ink in every local and national newspaper.

The San Francisco 49ers playoff contenders for the past few seasons have once again experienced the quick sand of the salary cap and bad decisions made by front office management.

The agenda of the 49er front office has been proclaimed to be to bring back as many free agents as possible. However the reality is that the franchise is hardly able to keep it’s head above water at this junction with dead salary issues that are exemplified in examples like J.J. Stokes and Junior Bryant’s contracts, which were extended and restructured.

Multiple unrestricted free agents are set to walk and test the waters as the front office sits powerless to do much of anything because of these bare circumstances and our immediate need to rectify our past sins at some point.

Certain players are coming to the surface now more than ever and the time to recognize them has been long overdue in most cases. Running back Kevan Barlow former star at the University of Pittsburgh has come into the spotlight like never before. He has broken open the collective bank by achieving his first 1,000-yard season and is primed to take over the starting tailback spot on the roster.

Kevan Barlow has been waiting in the wings behind veteran Garrison Hearst who made a miraculous recovery from an injury that claimed his starting role for well over two years. Kevan Barlow has numerous ties that bind him to the city of Pittsburgh and his love for that area and his friends and family is unprecedented to say the least.

“Just coming from a tough environment and seeing different things motivated me to be successful,” Barlow said. “God gave me a blessing and I used football to my advantage. It gave me the ability to get a scholarship and get an education and put me in a situation to be able to provide for my family.”

Barlow’s life history began at Peabody High where he was a two-time All-City choice, rushing for 3,121-yards and 31 touchdowns. He even played well at the safety position where he made 33 tackles, 3.5 sacks and one interception return for a touchdown. After his high school career was over he had calls coming in left and right for him to leave his hometown and to pursue a collegiate career far from home.

But family meant everything to Kevan and he decided to enroll at the University of Pittsburgh where he went on to distinguish himself far apart from the normal pack of athletes that have come from this establishment. He rushed for 2,324-yards with 20 touchdowns. He was the ninth person in school history to rush for over 2,000-yards and was able to accomplish that in just 15 starts. He finished his career at the University ranked 11th on the school’s career scoring list with 144 points.

As his career came to a close at the University of Pittsburgh the NFL draft of 2001 came a calling to him and the San Francisco 49ers answered in the third round by picking him up. Just as soon as Kevan Barlow was selected, Denver Bronco’s coach Mike Shanahan labeled Barlow the “best back in the draft”. It was something that was heard loud and clear around the war room for San Francisco as this athlete was picked to be the future at running back for the 49ers.

Since this day Kevan Barlow has been learning from one of the best in the business in Garrison Hearst. He has been sharing the tailback duties with him since 2001. He is now poised to be the breakout running back in 2004 for the San Francisco 49ers, where Garrison Hearst would either have to restructure his contract and take on a secondary role or be waived altogether and the team would move on with just Kevan Barlow.

Even fullback Fred Beasley, Hearst’s best friend and Barlow’s one-time nemesis admitted that we may have seen Garrison Hearst’s last days in San Francisco after the 2003 season. Fred Beasley was instrumental in bringing his long time friend back from injury and into the camp of the 49ers all over again. After he signed an extension on his contract he was able to convince Garrison Hearst to come back and sign on longer with him being his lead blocker.

“It’ll be very disappointing, but like I say, it’s a business,” Beasley said. “Even though he’s not going to be here, he’s still a very good friend of mine. It’s just going to be hard being on the field with him not being out there.” “He still can play. Hopefully he’ll be here next year to help with this team.”

Both Fred Beasley and Kevan Barlow have more so than not been at each other’s throats from time to time since he has become a 49er back in 2001. Kevan Barlow has even moved his locker away from Fred’s and Garrison’s to fulfill peace and harmony because of their philosophical differences and deep-rooted animosity for each other.

Fred Beasley has made known that he will perform his duties as his lead blocker when called upon because that is what he does. Kevan Barlow hopes in the pit of his stomach that it will always be Fred in front of him because he realizes he is the best in the business at what he does.

Garrison Hearst is to make a hefty $2.5 million in base salary next season, and he missed the past four games following a December 3rd surgery on his right knee. With Barlow seizing the opportunity he broke the 1,00-yard mark for the first time and finished with 1,024-yards and a hefty average of 5.1-yards per carry. This has made a statement that he is ready to assume the role as the featured running back for the San Francisco 49ers.

Head Coach Dennis Erickson has made known that there will be no rotation of running backs headed into the 2004 season. He has long been a supporter of a one-back system and he wants Kevan to be that featured back. What that spells out for Garrison Hearst is rather simple then and that is less carries and a reduced role in the offense.

Fred Beasley and Kevan Barlow have come to blows from time to time in the locker room and even on the sidelines starting in 2002 and ending again in 2003. Their personal feuds have been a famous occurrence that the players all know and recognize but at the same time brush off as meaningless.

“We had our thing,” Barlow said. “I know Garrison’s his boy, and there was a competition thing between me and Garrison. He probably wanted his boy to win. He wants to win, and he knows if I’m going to be out there, he’s got to support me. Hopefully that’s behind us and in the past, and we’ll look to the future, get better and be one of the best running back tandems in the league.”

As you may have witnessed rather it be in the stands every Sunday or sitting on a couch glued to the television, Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow are what they are because of fullback Fred Beasley. In a nutshell folks that’s what each of these players will tell you. And don’t ever forget what the offensive line does as well as they are the catalyst for making everything happen up front and personal as the holes never develop without expert shifting and blocking on their part as well.

A true running back is never as good until they recognize that it’s the fullback and the offensive line that create his opportunities to unfold and happen on the field. Sure a running back has to have all the other gifted and hard earned intangibles as well personally but the playmaking and performance of his teammates ranks very high on their success rate.

Beasley, who’s headed to his first Pro Bowl, said: “While we’re on the field working, we communicate. Off the field, it’s a little different. Garrison he’s the vet. He’s been there, been in wars. Kevan took advantage of his opportunity. I give him that. It’s a cutthroat business. So we’ve just got to see what’s going on.”

Kevan Barlow’s best play of the 2003 season came on a game against the team he grew up and around back home in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers played at 3-Com Park. It was an emotional game for Barlow because he had his family and friends in attendance at this particular game. His mother, Zella, came to the Bay Area to see her son play, but anguished over coming because of the flying knowing the same year her son was drafted the tragedy of 9/11 happened.

But her courage prevailed over her fear and she was able to watch her son put on a stellar performance in breaking a 78-yard touchdown run that would inevitably be the game-winning score. He did this against the background of family and friends and the realization that it was the team he marveled at back home in the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“It was important to play well to have a little bragging rights when I go home,” Barlow said. “I know how people are about the Steelers; they live, breathe and sleep Pittsburgh and they are all diehard. Being well-known back at home I knew I had to put on a great performance. A lot of people are proud of me and excited to see me do so well. I got about 50 messages on my phone that night and the next day. They were happy to see me do well out here on my own from Pittsburgh.”

The deep convictions Kevan Barlow has for family and friends back home speak for themselves. He is at times literally homesick when you look at the full spectrum of his life. He is without a doubt an athlete that has deep appreciation for life and what is necessary to complete satisfaction in life by recognizing what it is that brought him into this business.

Will the 49ers keep Garrison Hearst? Or will they end the two-back system and go back to the featured running back system that was a staple of the 49er offense when Garrison was in his prime. These are questions that will soon be answered, and I for one would like to see Hearst still around and participating in the running game of the 49ers. I am firm in believing that Garrison still has a couple of good years left in those legs of his.

Garrison Hearst hits you as more of a slashing runner than a power ball carrier, who started every game last year and rushed for 972-yards. Kevan Barlow on the other hand is more of a power runner than a finesse runner, and rushed for 675-yards despite nagging injuries as well last year in 2002.

Bottom line Kevan Barlow is a rare combination of size, speed and elusiveness. He has earned more playing time because of what he has done out on the field. He rushed for 512-yards on 125 attempts and four touchdowns in his rookie season. This was followed by 675-yards on 145 rushes and four scores in 2002. These years caught the eyes of scouts and coaches alike.

When Garrison Hearst went down in the beginning of December of 2003, Kevan Barlow took his best shot at the starting tailback position. With just four games remaining he had already amassed 591-rushing yards. In a game against the Arizona Cardinals, he destroyed any doubts concerning his durability or his toughness. He rushed for 154-yards on just 18 attempts in this game.

Barlow followed up this incredible performance by rushing for 85-yards in the snow and cold at Cincinnati. However his performance was flawed because of two critical fumbles at unfortunate moments in that game. Undeterred and coached on by his teammates he handled his next 56 chances (47 carries and 9 receptions) flawlessly.

And in his game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Kevan Barlow repeated his 154-yard rushing bonanza of just two weeks earlier. The big difference in this one was that he carried the football 30-times including one rushing touchdown. This goes to show you that he is well on his way to being an elite running back that deserves recognition from both a fans perspective and the media.

General Manager Terry Donahue knows the importance of keeping running back Kevan Barlow, as he becomes a restricted free agent for 2004. The 49ers will tender him at a level that would compensate them with first and third round draft picks if he were to end up with another team. They are in fact afraid to tender him less, because a team such as the Dallas Cowboys would gladly give up a first-round draft pick for a proven NFL running back such as Barlow.

Kevan Barlow’s tender will earn him approximately $1.8 million. Garrison Hearst, who is scheduled to earn $2.5 million next season, is another story. He would in essence earn too much to be a back-up running back on any team. On top of that the 49ers would save $500,000 in salary-cap room if they released him.

This puts the likelihood of his cut into reality and makes you think what the team will be like without a veteran runner in Garrison Hearst? It’s hard to fathom the team without him but reality is reality and business is business. Cuts will be necessary to sign other stars that are younger and more viably sound in durability and longevity.

Hard choices will be made and established veterans will be cut to save every available penny. Under owner Dr. John York you can bet that the bad decisions of the past will be paramount in decisions that are handed down along with a $70 million buyout of former owner Eddie DeBartolo.

Fumbling the ball has to be a source of contention for Kevan Barlow. We all know that is the root weakness he has dealt with for much of his career. Limiting those will be crucial to our continued success on the ground. Garrison Hearst is a veteran horse of his own kind and I happened to have the honor of meeting him and getting his autograph with the help of a dear friend.

I have nothing but admiration for this great-determined athlete, coming back from all adversity and believing in his rehabilitation and God alike. He was able to rise above all afflictions in life and prove he is worthy to carry the torch all over again. We are a better team for having him and being patient with him. Garrison Hearst carried the torch from Ricky Waters and gave this team a running identity again, for that we must all be thankful.