It was only two years ago that the San Francisco 49er’s were suddenly left without an elite running back as Garrison Hearst was bruised and broken after a horrific ankle injury that happened in a divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons.

The 49er’s were forced to go shopping for a running back to fill an enormous void left by Hearst, as he had just finished a career best season, a season that was filled with great anticipation that they would somehow be the dark horse entering another Super Bowl. Little did they know that they would never make it without Garrison Hearst?

Charlie Garner became the man; he was signed as just an afterthought as the Philadelphia Eagles cast him on the free agent heap, and he was found by the 49er’s at a discount price. Little did they realize that he would be an explosive and versatile running back that would mirror Hearst, and he would keep the 49er offense in any game at any time?

There is a huge void to fill after Charlie Garner was all but ignored for a contract extension, mostly due to salary cap purposes, but also a belief by the front office that they could manage without him. How do you manage to fill a running back that generated 1,789 all-purpose yards last season? And 1,764 all-purpose yards the year before that?

If that wasn’t the worst of it all they also lost one of their most productive and last standing legend from yesterday’s glory days legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice.

Both players committed what many believe to be the worst scenario any 49er player could possibly fathom, and that was to go and sign across the Bay with the hated Oakland Raiders.

These two explosive and dynamic players were in large part responsible for the 49er’s having the fourth best offense in the NFL last season, no one would know looking at their overall record at (6-10) but it was for real folks.

Before there was Charlie Garner though there was Garrison Hearst, he was the main man and the main horse in the 49er’s offensive stable. He earned a Pro Bowl spot with 2,105 all-purpose yards in 1998. However his outstanding run came to an end when he broke his ankle in a January playoff game, and he suffered many months of constant surgeries and rehabilitation to actually step out onto a playing field again.

“It’ll be a heck of a story if he does (return),” Mariucci said. “He’s a very popular guy on this team and in this league. He’s a fan favorite and a locker-room favorite.”

“I think he’s a bonus,” Mariucci said. “I think it would be fantastic to have him. If we don’t have him, then the other guys are going to be asked to carry the load.”

Who are these other guys anyhow? They include third-round draft pick Kevan Barlow and second-year player Paul Smith and Jonas Lewis. Barlow seems to be a far away contender as he missed summer mini-camps because of a knee injury. But Barlow is a big physical type of guy, at 6-1 and 238 pounds, he is now healthy and ready to compete for the starting position thought to be Hearst’s to steal. The underlying question will be how he fits into the system. He must prove that he is capable of fitting into an offense that was very pass-heavy and featured the much smaller and more athletic Charlie Garner last year.

Second-year running back Paul Smith, 5-11 and 234 pounds, is still almost like being a rookie all over again due to an injury to his calf that made him miss all of training camp and six weeks that year. Since then he has made great strides in this off-season, but he must adapt and prove agile enough to be a good pass-catcher and become an every-down kind of threat.

Jonas Lewis also has had some spectacular moves and he has moved himself up the charts over this past season. He is smaller, but very athletic and he is 5-9 and 210 pounds, but it seems to be that he will only be a change-of-pace type of running back and awesome on special teams units.

Who will stand up and take the 49er offense by the hand and lead them to destiny, every offense must have a great quarterback and a great running back to be truly successful. The 49er’s have been able to carry that tradition for many years. For the first time it will be tested openly and honestly, for Hearst will have to watch his back as the competition will be brought to bear on his often surgically repaired ankle.

“When I think of things, I think of them in an optimistic vein, so yes, I see this team making the playoffs. That’s the goal,” Mariucci said. “We feel we can. We feel we will. But there are a lot of things that have to fall into place.”

Going back to training camps it was a buzz all around as to what Garrison Hearst’s ankle would be like, and how would it hold up against a sound tackle by a defensive back? Facing full contact drills had everyone including myself glued to sources of information as to how he would come out of each drill, the pressure of not knowing how he was, was unbearable.

“I told Bryant Young, You’re the first one I want to hit, Just be sure to help me up,” Hearst said one Sunday after going through his first camp workout at University of the Pacific. These were the drills that would test the stamina of an ankle that sidelined him for over two years, and no one had ever been able to come back from.

“Now, we’re not going to have a scrimmage. It’s not like we’re going to go. All right Garrison, we’re just going to run some bull in the ring and tackle you for an hour and see if that thing holds up,” 49er’s Coach Steve Mariucci said. “He’ll get a little banged around in the upper body on 9-on-7 (drills). It’ll be a gradual thing. Let’s hope someone doesn’t fall on that ankle and it turns the wrong way.”

How Mariucci felt here was a clearly evident in his tone and demeanor as he was overly cautious and concerned that Hearst, after many painful months was finally going to test this ankle full bore. I know I would have the same reservations and am skeptical as hell if my top gun running back’s career was once again on the line.

Garrison Hearst, 30, has gone through a total of four surgeries, including a January. 11th procedure that cleaned out scar tissue and calcification around his ankle. This was all done in his quest to complete an improbable comeback.

“Just being in pads again is a step I’m looking forward to because it’s been so long,” Hearst said. “Mentally, I guess, is the hardest part (of his comeback), I feel really good. Once I’ve been on pads for a couple weeks. I’ll let you know how I feel body wise.”

The expectation felt by Hearst had to be electrifying as he was about to find out rather his body had healed, and that he was going to weather the rust that had set in for over two years. Hearst had to be thinking about what it would be like to start again in a real game and make those famous cuts of his and stretch the field with both his feet and his hands once again.

Garrison broke his lower left fibula on the first play from scrimmage in that playoff game in Atlanta, ending a career best season in which he rushed for 1,570 yards and was selected to his first Pro Bowl.

As I have mentioned before I witnessed that break as did many thousands of other fans, and I felt sick to my stomach as I watched him lying there. It was a scene out of your worst automobile accident; his ankle bent all the way back behind him and the screaming in pain that shattered the sidelines into silence. All was not well in Atlanta that day; the 49er’s lost a great deal that day.

Just last season, Hearst came off the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list October. 30th and joined the active roster November. 21st. He practiced mainly on the 49er’s scout team and never saw playing time in any games, in which he now admits were the right moves. “I wanted to come back very bad the first week, but I needed the work,” he said.

Now he has so much more worth to prove and that is to survive all the rigors of training camp and four NFL pre-season games. He will be tested like he never has before, as he battles both Kevan Barlow and Paul Smith for rights at the starting position.

“Some teams would have cut him by now because of his slim chance of returning,” Mariucci said. “He was as good as anybody when he got hurt.” Added Hearst: “I’ve been on teams where loyalty is not one of their fine points. Here, they gave me a chance to get back and see what I can do.”

The day of his first training camp audition arrived and he blew away the concerns and the “what ifs” in an instant. As he shot threw the hole he saw, shook defenders with a sharp cut to the outside on his surgically reconstructed left ankle and in an instant was running in the clear down the sideline.

Many hundreds of fans were there to see the debut of Garrison’s burst, and cheered with great vindication that their former running back was a part of the offense once again. Fans from all over including those on the Internet and read the news flashes on the successful run were instantly touched with a serene emotion of confidence.

Fans from up in the stands cheered and applauded Garrison for his successful debut, and chanted his name with great passion, so much that Hearst believed he was almost involved in a real game.

“It was good to hear my name again. That’s part of being in camp again. That’s one of the things you do enjoy,” said Hearst, who also noticed that some of the fans he signed autographs for after practice had donned his jersey. “They had to get them out of mothballs,” he said.

Hearst has battled this injury to his ankle for a long time now, his recovery was stalled by circulatory complications leading to avascular necrosis, a condition the effected bones can become brittle and die of insufficient blood flow. This condition is something that no athlete has ever been able to make a successful comeback from; Hearst is very determined to put that to rest for good.

Hearst has been forced to watch his 49er’s struggle, claw and fight their way through two excruciating rebuilding years, from the sidelines yearning to go out on the field and help his team win. No one can fathom the feelings of helplessness he must have felt to see his team fall (4-12) in 1999 and (6-10) in 2000.

“I never imagined it was going to take this long, because initially I thought it was a broken ankle,” Hearst said. “It’s been rough, but in my mind I was always coming back. It was just getting over the hurdles. Every month or so it was something different. It was just getting past those things and improving.”

Garrison Hearst had some inspiring support from all his teammates, and he held on to a hope that he could once again play at the same level he was before his injury. He never stopped believing he just kept working hard each and every day.

He acknowledges today that he could not have gotten to where he is today without his mother, Mary whom was a major source of support during his rehabilitation.

“My mama was always there for me,” Hearst said. “She told me, 'Baby, say your prayers and I’m praying for you. You’re going to be all right.” And nothing could be more of the truth than what he received from the organization itself, showing him that they believed in him by allowing him to remain a 49er throughout those two years. He has expressed a great thankfulness and expresses his intent to repay the 49er’s for their kindness.

On Monday July 30th Garrison Hearst participated in his first full contact drills in training camp, he carried the ball, took some hits and turned around and asked for some more. It was a resounding indication that his ankle was able to hold up under real physical testing in the form of live tackling and sprinting.

“It wasn’t bad,” the 49er’s running back said Monday after taking part in contact drills for the first time since being sidelined more than two years ago by a devastating ankle injury. “I think the first day out here at camp was harder than this day. We’ll see how it works out from here on out. Today was a good day, but it was good to get it over with.”

Hearst in his first day had a total of 10 carries where defenders reluctantly took shots at him. He was knocked around a bit, absorbed a couple of hits around his shoulder pads and now and then ran into the defensive players and delivered a blow himself.

All the teammates were cautious around him and in their observations of him throughout practice time, but at the same time they showed a hesitancy to deliver a fatal blow, for the questions were still there what if?

Head Coach Steve Mariucci was keenly aware at what was at stake, the diversity and future of his running game going into the 2001 season, and the morale and human emotion on Hearst as he made his first practice a success. He chalked this one up as yet another milestone in his journey to become a complete back all over again.

“This was good for his comeback,” Mariucci said. “It’s good for his mental makeup. Did you see him out there? He was looking for someone to hit. He loves contact. He loves to hit it up in there and bloody his nose. That’s why all the linemen love him so much.”

This was a great shot of adrenaline to Garrison Hearst’s pride as he was overjoyed to feel the progress his body had allowed him to feel. “There’s just general soreness over my whole body,” Hearst said. “I can’t say my ankle hurts more than anything else. You’ve just got to continue to ice everything.”

His only focus on everything he does is to play hard and make it to every pre-season game and compete for the starting position. He looks forward to every contact and every play with immense anticipation as he is determined to put all questions to rest.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “I’m trying not to look too far past this because I’ve got to make it through this first. But I think that’s the key thing, making it back to the regular season. That’s the next thing I’m looking at, playing on Sundays and winning, period.”

When he reflects on the fact at how the 49er’s demonstrated a great deal of patience with him throughout his enduring ordeal. He admits that if the 49er’s had given up on him he would have looked to join another team, most fortunately for both he never had to come to that decision.

“They were willing to stick by him and work with him through a difficult time, and Garrison showed he is willing to work and come back,” quarterback Jeff Garcia said. “It says a lot about both sides. Both sides could easily have given up.”

His story has been one in the highlights of 49er lure, should Hearst pull off this miracle and sustain exactly what he had back in 1998, it will be a real drama to be told to all his children and grandchildren. Many people consider it superhuman for what he has accomplished, I happen to be one of those.

“I guess it’s amazing to other people,” he said. “To me, I was always coming back. I never had any doubt whether I could do it again. It was getting over small hurdles each month.”

After the entire two weeks of training-camp drills and full-contact hits, Hearst admitted experiencing aches and pains like he had when he was in uniform in 1998. He considers it a blessing to have such pain, and he wears that like a scarlet letter and is proud of it. For with that pain he knows that his body is adjusting itself to life in the NFL once again, paving the way for his successful return.

When he was asked as to what he would accomplish in his first game back, he replied: “Not really. More than anything, it’s just learning plays, do whatever I need to do, do it full speed and let things happen,” said Hearst. “Hopefully, good things happen.”

When he was asked to compare training camp to a real live game he replied: “It’s faster.” The NFL is fast anyway. But once you start going against another team, everything’s like three times faster,” said Hearst. “They’re not your friends, they’re not holding up. They’re trying to get to you. So that puts another element into the game.”

As Garrison prepared for his first start in a pre-season game against the San Diego Chargers on August 11th, he did so with urgent expectations. All his teammates and all the coaches bit their lips in preparation for the big game.

“We have to play him in the pre-season to find out where he is,” said Mariucci. “After 30 months of surgeries and rehabs, we can’t wait for the Atlanta Falcons game (the regular season opener Sept. 9 at 3Com Park) to find out. We have to know. He has to know.”

Hearst has said his ultimate goal is to be even better than what he was back in 1998, The 49er’s would be just satisfied having him return back to just his old form and duplicating Charlie Garners numbers over the past two seasons. Garrison does not set his sights so low; he has something to prove not only to the 49er’s but to himself as well.

Head Coach Steve Mariucci downplayed his status as still learning and adjusting to the live action he was encountering, noting that it was way too early to say that Hearst was back at 100%.

“He’s not quite back to where he left off,” Mariucci said. “You’ve got to remember that he was one of the two or three best backs in the league: a Pro Bowl player, he ran for 1,500 yards, he caught the ball and he blocked. Is he there right now? No. My guess is he’s going to be a 25-30 carry back, at least not initially. He won’t assume the role he had when he left us. Maybe eventually.”

“We’ve been careful with him,” said Coach Steve Mariucci, expecting Hearst to start and play about one quarter. “He was so mad at me that I held him out of the first goal-line scrimmage (in practice this week). So I promised him he would get the first carry against San Diego.”

“I think the hardest part is over. I think the biggest obstacle was just getting back on the (practice) field,” said Hearst. “Pre-game will be the most exciting part. Running out in the tunnel and saying I’m back.”

Garrison Hearst almost embraces pain and adversity like they were his two best friends, back in 1994 Hearst tore his ACL. But came back to gain 1,070 yards with the Arizona Cardinals and win the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year honors the next season. He knows what it takes; he has never doubted or backed down from a fight. Not even once during his latest two-year recovery period. Going back into the training camp days of Garrison Hearst there was one day that stood out to Head Coach Steve Mariucci when he reflected upon it.
It was on a Tuesday in full-contact practice, rookie cornerback Rashard Holman pushed aside a blocker and laid his shoulder into Hearst, taking him down hard. Hearst was on the ground for a few seconds before getting up and walking away to Mariucci’s relief.

“I watched him all the way back to the huddle,” Mariucci said. Then I watched him standing back their drinking water and I’m waiting for him to limp or grab his ankle. And he knows we’re watching him. Then he just starts laughing. He’s got a big smile and he’s cackling back there and jumps back in the huddle and runs into somebody. He loves it.”

The humorous side of Hearst is something to be admired, as he has never complained or felt like he could not comeback. He understands the part of the coaching staff and their hesitancy to let him run full bolt, but he also is impatient with the progress as he feels he should be tested even more seriously than ever before.

Many athletes go through so many questions and depression when talking about their battles with devastating career-threatening injuries, Garrison Hearst does not stand alone as one of the prominent players sidelined for an extended amount of time due to injury.

“Some guys suffer through depression because they can’t play. Guys start worrying about their futures. They ponder things like who’s going to take their position, and is their injury career ending.” Sacramento Kings team Doctor Richard Marder quoted this. “It’s during this time that some athletes are the most vulnerable.”

Take for instance the devastating injury that 49er defensive tackle Bryant Young sustained, he missed the final four games of the 1998 regular season because of a severely broken right leg. Doctors inserted a titanium rod in the bone to keep it together.

Still, the excruciating injury did not stop Young. Not only did he bounce back, but also Young earned NFL Comeback Player-of-the-Year honors in 2000, finishing with a team high 11 sacks. The key to his success? It was patience.

“You can’t expect him to return to the same high level of play immediately,” said Young, who has been a real source of encouragement for Hearst. 'It takes probably a couple hundred (repetitions) before you start to gain confidence in the injury. You have to rid yourself of fear. Once you do that, than it’s easier to just go out and play. But all in all, I would say it takes anywhere from a year or two years to fully heal both mentally and physically.”

The running game to be implemented by the 49er’s will look a little different, the shift will be to running the ball more versus the potent passing attack, and while the 49er offense possesses one of the most feared passing attacks in the league. No team during the past three seasons has rushed for more yards than the 49er’s.

Certainly the contingent of running backs the 49er’s now employ will be much different, with the free agent loss of Charlie Garner across the Bay to Oakland, he was without a doubt the most significant loss that the 49er’s are forced to deal with.

The light-footed Garner took full advantage of the 49er’s multiple-receiver offenses by popping through the many holes created by formations that spread defenses across the field.

Looking at the main contenders that will replace him, Paul Smith, Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow, are much bigger backs, which may dictate a switch in the team’s running philosophy. Instead of lining up in multiple-receiver sets, the team might choose to stick to more of a standard formation: two backs, two receivers and one tight end.

One has to try and imagine how the 49er’s will ultimately fill that hole left by Garner, it has been a question since day one as he left for Oakland. Garrison Hearst’s development has left this team and it’s fans renewed hope that the void will go unnoticed as he makes his way back into the starting position after two long years off.

“Charlie was a very explosive runner and a very exciting runner,” said running backs coach Tom Rathman of Garner, who rushed for 2,371 yards during the past two seasons. “We might not have that kind of creativity as far as runners, but we are going to have power runners. Guys who are able to move the pile and break tackles. You are talking about different styles.”

Rookie Barlow (6-foot-1 out of Pittsburgh) is the biggest of the three at 238 pounds. “You look at film; you see defenders bouncing off (Barlow’s) legs just like (Atlanta’s) Jamal Anderson.” Rathman said. “(Barlow) might be a little faster. But very similar. Great balance.”

The 49er’s have not used a runner of that size since 230-pound Terry Kirby led the team in rushing in 1996. But even then Kirby did not run with as much force as displayed by rookie Kevan Barlow. The 49er’s know what they have in Garrison Hearst and he gives them the best shot at normalcy.

Paul Smith is the lightest of the bunch at 213 pounds, but he has the characteristics of a very hard runner. Coaches are trying to concentrate on making Smith, a former fullback at University of Texas El Paso, more elusive. “We will probably go to their strength;” offensive line coach Pat Morris said of the 49er’s stable of running backs. “We will probably run inside a little bit more.”

The problem with running outside, is the fact that it has become almost an outmoded concept, as in today’s NFL defenses have adjusted and become so lightening quick. However teams like the 49er’s had to install an outside running game to set up their play-action pass and give their offense diversity.

“It’s hard,” Morris admitted of running outside. “You’ve got to find a way to secure the edges, or you stretch (the defense) out and run back inside. You’ve got to find ways to do it. You’ve still got to attempt to do it, somehow, some way.”

So here we must consider exactly what are running backs will do? And how will they do in the regular season? Only after going through every pre-season game will we truly know what to expect.
My bet is on Garrison Hearst, please see my next article part two as we explore how his progress generates results and where he fits in throughout pre-season, till then let’s sit back and marvel at this unbelievable comeback.