One of the most devastating and horrific injuries that have ever evolved for The San Francisco 49er’s came true in a picturesque divisional playoff game.

Against the Atlanta Falcons on January 8th, 1999 when Falcon defensive end Chuck Smith spun 49er running back Garrison Hearst around on a hit after a seven-yard gain. His left cleat caught in the unforgiving artificial turf and his left fibula snapped with precision just above his ankle.

I can still recall this injury as I observed from the comfort of my living room, it was such an abrupt awakening at how critical one dynamic player can have on the out come of a teams hopes and dreams. I was instantly appalled to see Hearst writhing in pain grabbing at his ankle and the sports broadcasters admitting “this is not good.”

Garrison Hearst was faced with a career-ending injury one that would terminate his very existence as a professional athlete in The National Football League. His season over as the 49er’s spun out of control soon after the injury, he pledged to fight this injury with everything he had within himself.

Soon after his injury over the next six months, the lengthy rehabilitation did not progress on schedule as planned, and in July of 1999, Hearst had surgery on his ankle and missed the entire 1999 season. The culprit of his demise shown when an MRI was done on his ankle diagnosed Hearst to be afflicted with a vascular necrosis, a circulatory problem that prohibits the required blood flow and limits the strengthening and healing of a broken bone.

The condition would haunt him and linger for many more months and in May of 2000 he had a second ankle surgery performed where doctors cleaned out dead bone fragments and cartilage from Hearst’s ankle hoping to improve the circulatory problem.

Garrison Hearst was warmly embraced by the 49er franchise and patience was demonstrated in extraordinary form as teammates and front office personnel showed him that their support was unwavering. Fans alike embraced the pleasant thought of once again seeing Hearst out on the open field running and catching and crossing the goal line with renewed frequency.

Hearst began the 2000 season on the physically-unable-to-perform list and his rehabilitation again kicked in and made some limited progress. He practiced sporadically throughout October and November and was moved onto the active roster in late November. The 49er’s graciously kept him on the active roster but on the “inactive list” for the last four games of the 2000 season. Soon after the season Hearst once again went under the knife for a third and fourth time to clean out scar tissue from his injured ankle. It was stated to be a routine procedure. But the main focus was to ready him for spring mini-camps in 2001.

As the monster salary cap situation showed it’s ugly head with the San Francisco 49er’s so did the knowledge that unpleasant cuts would have to be made to get under that mandated cap as ruled by the league. One of those cuts was made against the very man that stepped in and produced way above average for Garrison while he was out suffering and rehabbing from his injury.

Running Back Charlie Garner signed as a free agent away from the Philadelphia Eagles was a power house for the franchise never skipping a beat after the 49er’s had lost Hearst. He was almost the identical twin of Hearst as his running and receiving skills and abilities mirrored those of Hearst’s.

On April 13th, 2001 Charlie Garner signed on with the Oakland Raiders after making many visits with other football franchises and embroiled in negotiations with remaining with the 49er’s. Garner with constant pressure from his free agent decided he would move on across the Bay to be an Oakland Raider under his old coach Jon Gruden from Philadelphia, now Oakland’s head coach.

Just prior to Garners signing the Oakland Raiders they were indicating they were in no hurry to replace retiring running back Napoleon Kaufman, but then all of a sudden they contacted Garner to finalize a deal. Charlie Garner the prolific workhorse for the 49er offense now was considered a despised rival as an Oakland Raider.

The drama of Charlie Garner was well publicized and contradictions and rumors were spread at the rate of a bubonic plague, as Charlie Garner and his agent Scott Crawford shopped his services all over the league in search of employment. The process was frustrating as Garner suddenly experienced problems in finding a suitable client that was willing to pay what he was seeking for a salary.

San Francisco general manager Bill Walsh frequently noted the 49er’s still had an interest in retaining Garner but only after June 1st, when the team would be able to clear more cap room. However the asking price soon became bloated and too much for Walsh to seriously consider. Garner also felt like the 49er’s had all but ditched him as comments were made by Walsh indicating that they had felt like he had worn down toward the end of the season and had been ineffective.

Napoleon Kaufman, who had been the Raider running back in conjunction with Tyrone Wheatley for six years, retired to devote time to his ministry. This in all aspects prodded the Raider front office to try and complete a deal with Charlie. Head Coach Jon Gruden indicated he was looking at Garner all along as the news unfolded across the Bay that the 49er’s would be hard pressed to resign him.

“In the free-agent process you have to look at every position available,” Gruden said. “When you look at the group of running backs initially, Charlie Garner has always had my attention. And I have been looking into his situation since the beginning of free agency.”

Garner spent the first five years of his career as a Philadelphia Eagle, and in 1995-96 Jon Gruden was his offensive coordinator. All three Gruden, Garner and his agent, Scott Crawford, all said that the latest signing might have happened whether or not Kaufman left.

Crawford even indicated he was totally unaware of Kaufman’s sudden announcement on retiring until the negotiations were in their final stages. But all facts indicate and point to that the Raiders would not have had room for Charlie Garner on the roster or under the salary cap as long as Kaufman remained on.

Jon Gruden was a major proponent in establishing dialogue with Garner and his agent Scott Crawford. Gruden has been openly impressed with Garner’s production and improved performance after leaving Philadelphia and becoming a 49er.

“He’s been a very productive, very versatile player,” Gruden said. “He’s tough, and in the last two years there’s only three players that have had more all-purpose yardage (from scrimmage) than Charlie Garner. Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James and Eddie George.” “Charlie has not missed a game in the last two years. He’s a durable back, and we think he’s going to add a lot to our football team.”

I have always been on record as a devote supporter of Charlie Garner, I am bewildered that he was driven so far for the almighty dollar but than again nothing seems to surprise me in that aspect or at least should. After having two great years of success in the 49er system he was more than ready to shop his services to the highest bidder as he wanted to claim some big money of his own.

Garner, at 29 years old, is a durable insider runner whose size (5-feet-9, 187-pounds) belies his power. He was never a full-time starter till 1999 he was given a chance to move into the San Francisco lineup because of injuries and the inability of Lawrence Phillips to seize the position. He rushed for 1,229 yards that season, then followed it up by running for 1,142 yards in 2000. His career best before 1999 was 588 yards in 1995 with the Eagles.

Even after all the talk and all the turmoil over San Francisco’s on purpose negligence to offer him a contract, Garner still expresses gratefulness for being a part of such a winning organization. And for providing him the chance to truly shine with his new career best statistics.

“My loyalty runs deep, but I know this is a business,” said Garner. “I wish the 49er’s the best. Things didn’t work out there, but they gave me the opportunity to paint this canvas that I now have.”

San Francisco was forced to sacrifice the productive running back because the focus was on to secure their offensive line and keep it intact. By re-signing tackles Scott Gragg and Derrick Deese this meant that someone had to be shown the door in this case Charlie.

Charlie Garner’s production increased dramatically under Steve Mariucci’s offense the past two years. Before 1999, his season high for rushing was 558 in 1995. Of course, he never carried the ball more than 116 times a year in Philadelphia; this is where he was sharing the load with running back Ricky Watters. In San Francisco, when he was the main attraction, he ran the ball 241 and 258 times.

What Charlie will have to envision again and become used to though is the fact he will be in that same situation again. As he will be a complement to Tyrone Wheatley. Garner expresses satisfaction to that type of role but I see it becoming a question as the season progresses. Charlie will demand more carries and time on the field.

There are many opinions and contradictions to Charlie Garner; I still feel we were very fortunate to have his services when we did. As Garrison Hearst continued to battle his injury and hopes and prayers seemed to diminish Charlie stepped in and kept the offense honest and consistent. We surely cannot deny him that.

The running back situation in San Francisco remains clouded, Hearst is making strides but will it be enough and will he be able to take a hit to that delicate area on his ankle? These are questions that still seem to be paramount in our minds.

In Hearst’s last season (1998), he racked up 2,105 combined rushing/receiving yards, nine touchdowns and a trip to the Pro Bowl. His style of play and skills are both very nice fits for the West Coast offensive system, which does not require a bruising runner to eat up ground between the tackles. Hearst would once again be called upon to run quick pitches to the outside, catch short to intermediate passes and make would be defensive backs miss. But Hearst has missed two full years? How can he possibly comeback and take over right where he left off?

As the first 49er mini-camp got underway and concluded Garrison Hearst was once again depressed and despondent over the injury that has sidelined him for so very long.

Doctors did not clear Hearst to practice so he was unable to participate yet again with the squad on the practice field. Hearst was openly annoyed not to be able to participate.

“Some of these guys, the doctors are just taking a cautious approach,” said coach Steve Mariucci, who seemed unfazed by the annoyances. “Garrison really wanted to get out there; He’s done everything: run, cut, and run in the sand. But the doctors are taking a real conservative approach in not allowing him to overdo it and suffer a setback.”

“We had a great start at mini-camp,“ he said. “You’re always going to have a few guys who are rehabbing. It happens every year. You have a few guys who had surgeries and they’re not quite ready. Some teams in the league don’t bring their veterans in now. They just do the rookies. Some don’t have it at all.” “So, we’ve just had mini-camp with 105 players knowing that a handful will still be watching.”

Garrison was irate that he could not be cleared but doctors and team officials soon came to the conclusion that patience was the best prescription for Garrison at this time. Hearst has petitioned fro more time and has a will of steel to compete and play again, being out for over two years has taken it’s toll mentally and the assurance that he still has something left in him is demanding to come out in him.

“Garrison has done quite a bit, especially this last week or two,” Mariucci said. 'He’s been out here. We had a couple of workout groups in the morning. They come out and run. He’s been out here working with Jerry and the rest of the guys; I thought he was really pretty damn close.”

The real results would not come until the start of the second 49er mini-camp as on June 1st, 2001 as on that day Garrison Hearst demonstrated that there is light at the end of the dark tunnel. The workout was so encouraging in the eyes of the front office and the coaching staff that they have indicated that he will take part in contact practices during training camp, which begins July 25.

“I thought he looked good, really good,” said general manager Terry Donahue. “He’s obviously come along way since last season. Last year it was obvious to me that he was favoring his ankle, but that didn’t show today.” “I just ran and did some drills with Jerry Attaway,” Hearst said. “We did some pass catching drills, some cone drills, some shuttle drills and around the bag stuff. Mooch and the crew from upstairs was out their watching and Fred Beasley and I were out there working. The ankle feels really good. I am ready to go where they let me.”

One of the most commendable aspects that I must comment about at this time is the way that the San Francisco 49er’s have treated Hearst since his injury. I have always for these last two years been impressed with the professionalism and honest caring that they have bestowed Hearst with through his injury. Many franchises would have tried to unload an athlete that is not expected to come back from such a horrific and complicated injury.

The 49er’s have been genuine and kind to this athlete even activating him last year so he could be part of the active roster, his locker room presence speaks all for itself as he is a strong presence there on any given day. “We all love Garrison,” said Steve Mariucci. “If you have ever pulled for a guy to come back from an injury, it’s Garrison. To have him comeback would be just awesome.”

Still there is guarded optimism in the 49er ranks and even with the fans that watch the newswire and pay close attention to the sports telecast. The sentiments are honest concerns for his well being as a human being and at the same time a deep sense of urgency to get him ready to be our featured back in 2001.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Mariucci said. “I dream of the day he scores a touchdown in 3 Com and the crowd goes crazy. But we aren’t putting all our eggs in that basket. His ankle has to prove to all of us that it is going to hold up.” “I’m hoping and intending on using him in pre-season games. We need to know exactly where he is.”

With Charlie Garner’s loss to the Oakland Raiders, second-year running backs Paul Smith and Jonas Lewis have been splitting the bulk of the plays at tailback during the four-day mini-camp. Kevan Barlow, a third-round draft pick who had torn knee cartilage repaired April 30th, took part only on a limited basis.

General Manager Terry Donahue admitted that they have not seriously considered looking at a veteran running back in case Hearst is not ready to go, due to their salary cap situation. The consensus is the running back by committee approach where time on the field would be split between Paul Smith and maybe Jonas Lewis or even Kevan Barlow.

The 49er’s are not accustomed to this type of running offense and we have a history of always having a featured main running back. I hope one will emerge rather quickly once pre-season starts so that it is kept within our tradition.

The real dream of all 49er fans is for Garrison Hearst to come out in his old form and capture the audiences as he once did in his glorious statistics of 1997 and 1998. The emphasis will be carefully placed on the shoulders of Hearst to try and be that main running back for the 2001 season. However as was stated we can not sell ourselves down the river and believe there is not room for setbacks.

We need to have confidence in the backs we have now in Paul Smith, Jonas Lewis and newly drafted Kevan Barlow to come out and compete and shine. It will be even more crucial that we show and give support to their hard work and dedication to excel and learn.

In all Hearst looks terrific and his attention to his physical fitness is of high merit for he concentrates on how he looks and feels on a constant basis. He is focused and particular as he evaluates himself and demands more from his body. Hearst is the catalyst of a true athlete hell bent on making a successful comeback from a devastating setback.

At 30-years old he has plenty left in his tank and is raring to go right away. His calves are the same size and show no signs of muscle atrophy. And he runs straight ahead going all-out. Now he is looking forward to doing everything full-speed ahead again in practice before he considers this a full recovery.

“I see a glimmer, a start. That’s all I can say,” Hearst said. “I’m not going to look forward to pre-season just yet. It’s practice more than anything to me.”

The future forecast of Hearst remains a mystery even though we have seen some positive signs there is still guarded concern. Hearst has not played for two- straight full seasons, no one knows if he will be able to shake off the rust and get right back on track again. That alone would be another major milestone to overcome. Doctors seem to be confident that the ankle has healed, but they do not know of how hard a hit he will be able to sustain to it when out on the field in a regular season game.

The very next hurdle he will have to pass over is full-contact practice drill on July 25th. Hearst has not worn any pads or really taken a good hit. Should he not have any setbacks after this session of training he will obviously be cleared fro pre-season play. This is where we will have the intense competition begin among the tailbacks, as all of them are eager to come through and be the undisputed starter.

“For me it’s all about getting better every day,” Pro Bowl running back Garrison Hearst said. “I’m not even thinking about pre-season right now. For me it’s all about practice and getting better in everything I do on the field.”

Garrison was brilliant the day he was signed by the 49er’s as an unrestricted free agent in 1997. He was originally selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the first round (No.3 overall) of the 1993 NFL Draft. He was then waived by Arizona and picked up by Cincinnati on (8-21-96) before then coming to the 49er's.

He has an outstanding 1998 season, which saw him set several team and personal records. He earned his first career Pro Bowl selection by posting Team record and career high 1,570-yards rushing. Set a Career High with seven rushing touchdowns. Shattered the existing single-game Team Record and established a Career High with 198-yards rushing against the Detroit Lions on (12-14). He is a powerful runner with explosive burst; has three 1,000-yard seasons to his credit. Named NFL Comeback Player-of-the-Year after registering first Career 1,000-yard season in 1995. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield.

Garrison Hearst brings experience, knowledge, versatility, elusiveness, power and finesse to the game and he loves everything about the game. A champion in his heart he wants to display that once again out on the playing field. He wants to experience the personal high of the crazed 49er fans chanting his name and screaming for more of the same.

Garrison Hearst had to replace a departed Ricky Watters and he is being called upon once again to fill a glaring hole of inexperience at the tailback position right now. With our offensive line in tact it will be of high importance to establish continuity once again with them.

49er Quarterback Jeff Garcia will need the insurance of a quality running back to expel the heat that will be brought against him in his third year as a starter. He is not guaranteed that this season as Garner is long gone. Hearst is the only one with veteran-ship but the rust will have to be scoured off first.

The honest competition among our running backs will be embraced as they jockey for the starting position, having a running back by committee stance does not stand that well with me. I would hate to see us move away from more of the basics that founded our West Coast Offense. I believe that the talent will be closely evaluated and that the proper athlete will emerge sometime during the pre-season. Who that may be is anyone’s best-calculated guess at this point?

For a quality Pro Bowl type football veteran to have their career suddenly put on hold because of an injury, is traumatic enough, Hearst has earned every right to comeback and make the statement he needs to make that he is above all that stand in his way. His incredible drive inside of himself to excel and persevere at all costs are carried with a high degree of dignity and respect for here is someone that desires to make the greatest of comebacks in the face of extreme adversity.

To Hearst I am proud of all that he has accomplished and is sure too do again, I pray that he will be able to take to the field in 3-Com. And bring the crowd to their feet in excited jubilation with victory after victory and I hope he will be around to see this rebuilding process put forth and reap the results of it’s new class of youth. There is so much to be thankful for in the sphere of Garrison Hearst, his patience and leadership are valuable commodities to possess within a team framework.

We need this individual on our football team, he is unafraid to make sacrifices in which he did already in restructuring his contract to help the 49er’s get under the dreaded salary cap. He is of high moral character and charitable to others. He sets the example of pure excellence and demands it from himself first before expecting it from you after.

You will be in the minds and hearts of all the 49er faithful as these next few months transpire. We all hope that you can make the altering life change and comeback stronger and even a bit better than before. I salute you Garrison Hearst for you spirit and faith.