The future of veteran running back Garrison Hearst has become a question; many are not able to define with absolute certainty. There will be questions throughout the season as to his endurance, stamina and durability over the course of a full sixteen-week schedule, a schedule that shows no mercy for weakness in the NFL.

The competition at this position will be hotly contested as all four running backs will set their yearning eyes on the coveted prize, that being the starting position for the 2001 season. Hearst faces many challenges, the first being his own mental and physical challenges he must deal with on a constant basis. It almost seems like he is in a situation where he must guarantee every time he plays that he will still get up and run off the field.

Even though Hearst went without missing one practice in training camp, he feels like the team has taken the very slow route with him, in terms of his playing time. As a matter of fact he becomes very frustrated when he is forced to take some time off at the coaches request.

“Every time we give him time off, he’s mad,” Mariucci said. “He’s a tough guy, and I love that about him. But he hasn’t really had a setback. I said, 'San Diego is going to tackle you soon enough. Just relax.”

All three running backs have something to prove that being Barlow, Smith and Hearst, all three covet the ultimate prize in the starting position. “Garrison has got to get back into it mentally and show everybody he can climb that ladder,” Rathman said. “Paul’s learning to be creative as a runner, and Kevan is learning the offense.”

49er’s running backs Coach Tom Rathman gets all excited when he talks about his group of running backs, he feels that they are one of the most formidable groups in the league today. And once healthy will be able to produce and compete with any team.

“We think we’ve got some horses. It’s just a matter of getting them trained,” Rathman said, a longtime horseracing fan. “But I’d ride those horses,” Rathman continued while grabbing an imaginary pair of reins. “They could take us all the way to the derby.”

On August 11th, 2001 Garrison Hearst got his chance at starting for the San Francisco 49er’s after two long years of constant pain, surgery and rehabilitation. Head Coach Steve Mariucci was determined to silence the skeptics once and for all, and to hand the ball off to Hearst immediately. Hearst touched the ball on the 49er’s first two offensive plays, but it wasn’t until he got the ball a third consecutive time that he was finally tackled. Hearst bounced right back up without any sighs of relief.

Hearst was not his elite self as he was in 1998, and even though the team lost to the Chargers 25-24, the most significant aspect of the game was the fact that Garrison was back for real. And that the possibilities were endless when you sat down and thought about them. The Chargers pulled out the victory with 39 seconds remaining when quarterback Dave Dickenson hot DeRonnie Pitts on a three-yard touchdown pass and followed up with a two-point conversion pass to Patrick Batteaux.

“He was perfect on his assignments,” Mariucci said of Hearst. “He felt good and wanted to stay in the game. We took him out and told him to save it for practice and the Raiders game (next Sunday).”

On the 49er’s very first play from scrimmage, Hearst was stacked up after taking a handoff up the middle for no gain. The whistle blew without Hearst being tackled.

“I didn’t get nervous until the first play,” Hearst said. “I ran the first play like I was nervous. I rushed instead of taking my time and being patient.” He was then again a target on the second play when quarterback Jeff Garcia found him in the left flat. Hearst eluded the attempted tackle of strong safety Rodney Harrison along the sideline and gained 15 yards before being forced out of bounds. Again without hitting the turf, by free safety Rogers Beckett.

“It’s natural for me,” Hearst said. “I think he (Harrison) thought I was going to go inside. He set up to make the tackle and I got low on him. It just felt great.” Hearst was finally tackled on play three, as he gained three yards off right tackle before being brought down by defensive end Marcellus Wiley.

This was the play that got me excited and reminded me of the Hearst of old, I was overjoyed at the same time that he did not get hurt, but I know that I have to start ridding myself of those questions every time he gets tackled. I have to train myself that this is out of the normal to feel this way.

“I think he did a good job when he got his opportunities,” Garcia said. “He’s still feeling it out. It’s the first time with contact. He made a nice catch out in the flat, he ran the ball hard and he’s only going to continue to improve. After two years of being laid off and getting back into physical contact, I think he did a great job.”

Even though none of his runs were any longer than three yards, he showed no hesitancy in hitting the holes or running into traffic. He even used a spin move, the move he employed on the play in which he was injured in 1999, and just missed escaping the grasp of defensive tackle John Parrella.

“It’s come back in training camp a little bit by a little bit and in this game I felt myself doing some good things,” Hearst said. “I felt better with each carry, each play.”

With his first baptism of fire he now has to prepare for Oakland, as the Raiders will come to 3-Com with former running back star Charlie Garner and Jerry Rice in what was expected to be another Battle of the Bay even though it is only pre-season.

Everyone knows how high the stakes are for the 49er’s to find a starting running back with the departure of Pro Bowl star Charlie Garner to the Oakland Raiders. Hearst, who set a club record with 1570 yards in 1998, seems to be the logical choice but not the clear lock as of yet. The facts remain that this injury he endured is an injury no one has ever comeback from.

When Hearst was hurt, he suffered circulation problems caused by a degenerative bone condition, the same kind of condition that drove Bo Jackson from pro football. It took Hearst 30 months to return and, as you might expect, he’s not the same player. Those who know him, watch him and pull for him said he seems to have lost the quick change of direction that made him special.

Even when you look at Hearst’s 15-yard gain in the first game, it still stood as the only highlight on the team’s film that day. The 49er’s cannot afford two yards a carry if Hearst is to make the comeback complete. The 49er’s are paying Hearst a contract heavy in easy-to-make incentives, including a provision paying him $600,000 if he gains a yard, so if he sticks the 49er’s want more than just a part-time running back.

“We anticipate having that sort of production from the tailback spot again,” said Mariucci. “We’re all hoping Garrison is a large part of that. If he’s healthy enough to make the team, the chances are that he’ll share the load so we don’t wear him out and we can develop the other guys. It’s going to be a little bit of back-by-committee until he can prove to us he can carry the ball 20-25 times a game.”

“The production. We’ve got to replace the production of Charlie Garner;” coach Steve Mariucci said when asked what trait of Garners would be hardest to replace. “He was good in the ground game, good in the pass game. He could line up as a receiver; he was a tough guy. He was very productive.” “Whether it’s someone else or two or three guys, somebody is going to have to make up for that loss.”

On August 19th, 2001 the second pre-season game against the Oakland Raiders arrived and so did Garrison Hearst, with great expectations. He was welcomed back to 3-Com with a warm ovation from the crowd during pre-game introductions. Hearst had six carries for 27 yards, including a 13-yard run in which he swept around left end and broke a tackle by Tory James before going down. Hearst had five carries for nine yards and didn’t have a run longer than three yards the previous weekend in the exhibition opener in San Diego.

“I thought I was going to go a little more, but whatever they give me I’m going to take advantage of it,” Hearst said. “Right now, I’m feeling good, but I’ll have to take it day by day. Tonight was a big step, being more a part of the offense.”

The 49er’s went on to defeat their archrivals across the Bay 20-17 before a crowd of 67,817 people. Most of the jubilation was focused on the return of wide receiver Jerry Rice in a Raider uniform, however he did not provoke any glory receptions or rub anything in anyone’s face as his return was but another clear indication that the 49er’s were moving on.

The real highlight of the game was, a spinning, cutting, 13-yard romp early in the second quarter that saw Hearst mow down cornerback Tory James and scamper out of bounds pas t the grasp of Pope. It was a momentum-building play that helped carry the 49er’s to a 26-yard Jose Cortez field goal and a 10-7 advantage.

All in all when I look back upon this game the one thing that stood out was the fact his rhythm was back in form. The stutter step was back. The push up the middle was strong and worry-free. He established a sense of security as he went unscathed once again against a ferocious opponent known for their relentless and unmerciful hitting.

Then there was the third pre-season game against the Seattle Seahawks; this was yet another game where Hearst was expected to see some increased playing time over the last two. His expectations were once again full of promise, as he wanted to be a difference maker.

Hearst rushed nine times for 35 yards in the first half; he also caught a pass for 25 yards, though he dropped two passes and fumbled on the Seahawks four-yard line as well. He shared his playing time that day with rookie running back Kevan Barlow, who looked even more impressive than Hearst, after rushing for 66 yards and scoring on a one-yard run with 10 seconds left to play. It was a nightmare of a game for the 49er’s, as it was one of the worst first quarters ever witnessed. The 49er’s fell behind Seattle 21-0 and never recovered from it. They lost 28-17 at 3-Com.

The 49er’s looked like they were going to cut into the lead further after a poor punt put the 49er’s at Seattle’s 29-yard line. Eventually, running back Garrison Hearst flashed his pre-ankle injury quickness by bolting up the middle for an eight-yard gain o the 2. But on the very next play, Hearst fumbled the handoff from quarterback Tim Rattay and the ball was picked up by Reggie Tongue, who lateraled to fellow safety Marcus Robertson.

This seemed to be knife in the back for Hearst as he displayed the mere fact that he was not oblivious to making some mental mistakes on the field. It proved that Hearst still had some major playing time left to play before contemplating taking the starting position.

It was in this game where reserve tailbacks Paul Smith and Kevan Barlow really shined, thus casting a shadow on Garrison Hearst, proving that they were worthy contenders for the starting position. Paul Smith, a second-year player from University of Texas El Paso, collected 29 yards in six attempts in the third quarter. Not bad for a guy who missed the first two weeks of training camp with an ankle injury.

It was Kevan Barlow though that really stole the show; the rookie from Pittsburgh played in the fourth quarter and picked up 66 yards in 13 carries. He also scored on a one-yard run with 10 seconds left. The score was significant because of his lack of inactivity in training camp. He had minor knee surgery after the draft in April, strained a right quadriceps and missed the first three weeks of pre-season workouts.

All in all the reserves proved to be more than adequate at holding their own, and seem to be in perfect placement for a shot at more playing time, maybe at the expense of Garrison Hearst. This is where we must determine what our running game will be like and what kind of face we want it to have.

The concern from the front office was crystal clear as they acknowledged for the first time that the starting position was up for grabs. And that Hearst was fighting for the mere right to remain on the team as the first wave of cuts went through in trimming down the roster.

“He’s fighting for a job on the team like everyone else is,” Mariucci said of Hearst. “He’s fighting for a starting spot. We are still trying to protect the health of the ankle. Does he feel it’s healthy enough to hold up? I guess there’s no guarantee. He’s doing the best he can.”

The 49er’s must be in compliance with cutting down to 53 active members soon for their roster by September 2nd, 2001, will Garrison Hearst be one of the unfortunate cuts that they make. He must improve in the last pre-season game of the season to have some kind of insurance; there must be some tangible results to convince the front office that he is worth the investment.

Speculations are already flying about that Hearst will be the odd man out, even though the 49er’s waited patiently for two and a half years for him to make his return to the field. When Mariucci was asked about Hearst being here for the opening game against Atlanta on September 9th, he was tight lipped about the prospect.

“We’re not talking about opening day right now,” Mariucci said. “All we’re talking about Now are the cuts this week. That will be sorted out as we go.” Hearst is only scheduled to make a base salary of $477,000 this season. And even though Mariucci refused to discuss his situation specifically, he did say that the salary-cap-strapped team must weigh financial considerations in its personnel decisions.

Is it a matter of principles or politics? That’s the answer I am wondering about, how do we consider cutting a veteran like Hearst that we had enough faith in to wait two and a half years. And now considering to cut him simply because we do not feel he has advanced enough, to be compared to what he was in 1998 at 100%? I have a hard time with that, I think we should test him even more in this pre-season game at Denver and consider that he will be very rusty after a long stay on the bench for over 30 months.

What is even less apparent is the fact, that even though he is only making the veteran minimum, his salary is laced with many bonuses and incentives that will pay him $1 million dollars more should he complete all his assignments on that contract and it’s stipulations.

“I’m not going to get specific about Garrison’s contract, but in general, nowadays with the way it is with the salary cap, particularly on teams that are tight and close to it, the reality is you have to consider salaries,” Mariucci said. “Do you keep a rookie at $209,000 or a vested veteran at ($500,000) or $600,000? Is a vested veteran that much better than a rookie.”

The real consensus here is that the 49er’s still are mired in the salary cap, Hearst is a real candidate at being waived to clear some of that. However why would you carry this dynamic veteran for two and a half years to see if he makes it, and then suddenly cut him loose without proof that he can make it.

If you need to look at a team in some similarity look at the New England Patriots, and what happened to their running back in Robert Edwards. He was released after a long rehabilitation, after attempting to comeback from a knee injury that sidelined him for over two years.

What it all comes down to is performance and money, Kevan Barlow and Paul Smith seem to be able to carry the load significantly enough that it forces the 49er’s to really consider holding on to Hearst for another year. Barlow and Smith and even special team’s running back Jonas Lewis will see increased playing time to determine this.

It seems very likely that the 49er’s will name their starting running back sometime after their final pre-season game in Denver, the stable of running backs was further constricted when the team released XFL refugee Saladin McCullough. McCullough, an Oregon product who played for the XFL champion Los Angeles Xtreme, had 12 carries for 15 yards (1.3 average) through three exhibition games. McCullough also averaged 32.3 yards on three kickoff returns.

The presumption is why not test Barlow and Smith now the same way that we tested cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster, when we threw them on the fire, the best way for someone to learn is instant game experience.

Is this the way that the 49er’s have chosen to make the team younger and more flexible, it certainly is a reversal from the past where we would acquire a few veteran free agents and make a run at the playoffs every year. However the salary cap has forced a changing of the guard in San Francisco out with the old and in with the new. The evidence is overwhelming even though the front office says otherwise.

“This is not a concerted effort to get rid of the veterans and become young. It really isn’t,” Coach Steve Mariucci said in the wake of the team’s decision to release injured defensive lineman Junior Bryant. The team also released receiver Jerry Rice and linebackers Ken Norton Jr. and Winfred Tubbs in the off-season.

The instant gratification process is real in the NFL; owners want returns on their investments and who can really blame them with salaries the way they are? The 49er’s are no different, Mariucci realizes that there must be better improvement on this team, or someone like himself will have to answer to that.

“We’re trying to be as competitive as we can this year, as long as we do it under the parameters of the salary cap,” Mariucci said. “We want to play the best guys, not just throw the freshmen in against the varsity. We’d like to win some games this year.” “But I’m not going to lie to you; the salary cap comes into consideration. We used to not have to worry about that. But for the time being at least, we do.”

To get a clearer picture of where the 49er salary cap is right now, General Manager Terry Donahue said recently that the 49er’s are roughly $160,000 under the salary cap with the current rule that counts the top 51 salaries, which still includes Bryant’s.

That means that is the 49er’s want to fill their 53-man roster, they must add three more salaries at a rookie minimum of $209,000 each. A complete five-man practice squad costs another $340,000 against the cap. So to fill a 58-man roster, the team still needs to shave roughly $800,000 in salaries. Where do you think they will do this?

Surprisingly some of his own competition has endorsed him, because of his extenuating condition and what he has gone through to just have a shot at playing once again. One of them is tailback special teams specialist Jonas Lewis.

“That would be mind boggling, for something like that to actually happen,” Lewis said. “I mean, look at all the hard work he’s done. It would be great to see him step out there opening day against Atlanta. It would stand out as an accomplishment to anyone who’s ever had to suffer from an injury like that. A lot of people had written him off.”

Even second-year back Paul Smith has endorsed Garrison Hearst, he has noted that everyone on the team that he knows is privately pulling for Hearst to make the successful comeback, including himself.

“Just seeing somebody able to overcome something as devastating as his injury, I mean it goes far beyond the football field,” Smith said. Smith knows that if Hearst was released he would move up in position, but he openly admitted he wanted to see Hearst remain a part of this team. “Sometimes, as a player you have to be unselfish,” he said. “When somebody has gone through an injury or a major setback like that, you’ve got to see where that person comes out.”

Jonas Lewis signaled the same sentiments, knowing that if Hearst is kept it could signal the end of his career with the 49er’s, he says it makes no difference in the way he continues to work hard and trying to make the team in a honest and fair fashion.

“Look, I’m going to do my thing, regardless,” Lewis said. “And whatever happens happens. I can’t control what they’ve got going upstairs. There’s no way. If I could, everybody here could get a little bit. But I can’t control it. The only thing you can control is how hard you work, and what you put into your job.”

The 49er’s have already contacted Hearst and his agent that a restructured contract would have to be made in order for Hearst to make the roster. In it’s current form, Hearst’s contract voids after playing time incentives kick in, which Hearst could reach in the first two regular season games. Once the contract voids, the 49er’s are on the hook for $1.7 million against their 2002 cap.

What makes this restructuring so vital right now is not only do they need to make room and money to field a practice squad, but they also must look at what they are facing for next year. They are facing a cap obligation of $3.6 million each for departed wide receiver Jerry Rice and waived defensive lineman Junior Bryant, plus an additional $925,000 from retired center Chris Dalman. It is all money that’s chewed up for past bonuses, and money that cannot be spent on current players.

The bottom line is this Hearst must restructure or be waived, It is hard to fathom at how horrible this would be, for Garrison Hearst to come out of this both physically and mentally, only to be defeated financially. We need to keep Hearst, find a way to make his contract friendly to both sides, I believe each side owes the other something and I hope we can go into 2001 with Hearst.

I do feel an obligation to him, as he has restructured before so as to help the team through it’s financial mess. I am confident that he would do so again under the circumstances, and the fact that he has talented competition nipping at his heels. This is what will make him a better all around player, to justify that we worked hard together to make this miracle really happen, it requires hard work on both sides.

I will continue to follow this story, and write as to my analysis on this matter as it happens, the Garrison Hearst saga is far from over. It is a saga worth observing throughout the season as it unfolds. I am honored and I am hopeful that Garrison Hearst will find some of his past glory in those legs and hands, and carry this team to and over the goal line.