THROWBACK THURSDAY: GARRISON HEARST

Garrison Hearst

In the lexicon of professional football, players are so often forgotten amid conversations of legends, current stars, classic rivalries and Tim Tebow. Players that were around for a few years, regardless of how dominant or impressive they were, rarely find themselves being mentioned once they disappear from the scope of the spotlight. Here’s where I’d like to put the spotlight back on these guys, and shed some new light on someone many may have forgotten.

With that being said, let’s take a trip back 15 years to the 1998 NFL season and have a little talk about Garrison Hearst; my favorite 49er of all time.

Some things resonate more than others, especially when you’re a kid. Weird stuff is cool. Like different face mask types.  Hearst sported the classic “Deion“  face mask, which should be the only face mask allowed for running backs.[1]  Another thing about Hearst that still intrigues me; he was one of the last running backs I can remember that donned a nasal strip.[2] Before even watching him play, I already thought he looked really cool. And for my 10-year old self, that was very important.

By the way, I sincerely hope my office IT department doesn’t closely audit internet activity; I’d rather not have this conversation anytime soon (or ever): “Seems yesterday you spent almost 2 hours googling ‘Garrison Hearst nasal strip’, ‘Weird NFL facemasks’, ‘Steve Weatherford sixpack’ and ‘Cee-Lo Green without sunglasses ’, while listening to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ on repeat the entire time… Can you explain that?”

Uhhh… nope, I cannot.

Okay, okay, back to Garrison Hearst.

Hearst spent his first four seasons toiling in Arizona (’93-’95) and Cincinnati (’96), dismal franchises at the time.[3] Then in 1997, after being released by the Bengals due to injury concerns, Hearst rejoined the 49ers, which had been in search of a solid running back since Ricky Watters bolted for the Eagles after the 1994 season.[4]

In his first year with the Niners, Hearst ran for 1,019 yards and 4 TDs, while averaging 4.4 yards per carry in 13 games; all this before injuring his collarbone in Week 13. With a great start to his 49ers career, Hearst was poised for a breakout season the following season.

Jump to September 6th, 1998[5]; Week 1 of the 1998 NFL season.[6]  I was at a summer country club watching the Jets-49ers game at the snack bar on, from what I can remember, the smallest TV in the history of the world (approximate figure), surrounded by Jets fans over the age of 60.[7] [8]

After playing to a tie in regulation, the game went into overtime with both teams tied at 30. After the Jets failed to get a first down, Jet punter Nick Gallery pinned the Niners on their own four-yard line. And then this happened:

Again; I’m a 10-year old 49er fan, who already liked Garrison Hearst. And I then watch him break off the longest run in the most clutch situation that I had ever experienced in my short history of NFL fandom. I needed nothing more; I was hooked. From then on Hearst was my favorite player of all time. I forgot about every other player in the NFL; life was about Garrison Hearst. Steve Young and Jerry Rice were merely afterthoughts. And although Jerry Rice was who drew me to the 49ers, Hearst gets the credit of keeping me a fan for good; that run being the icing on the cake.

Aside from the run itself, my most vivid memory of that play was watching Mo Lewis’ diving attempt to punch the ball out of Hearst’s hands from behind. I was convinced that it was going to be a fumble, but Hearst held on, falling into the endzone and capturing the hearts of millions of Americans in the process.[9] However, after re-watching the video, my new favorite part is 49ers radio broadcaster Joe Starkey describing Hearst running downfield as he “throws off bodies like clothes after a marathon”. Perfect.

Hearst’s rushing numbers in ‘98: 1,570 yards and seven touchdowns on 5.1 yards per carry. After his first two seasons with the 49ers, the guy was on his way to becoming a certifiable star.

Despite the promise of the regular season, the playoffs proved opposite. Hearst suffered one of the most brutal ankle injuries I’ve ever seen, one which would essentially derail his career, in the NFC Divisional round game against the Atlanta Falcons.[10] (Another moment I had the pleasure of watching firsthand.)

After sitting out two full seasons, he would come back to rush for 1,206 yards and 4 TDs on 4.8 yards per carry, winning him the comeback player of the year in the 2001 season. Not enough can be said about his comeback in 2001, as he was basically written off after missing the two full seasons following the ankle injury in ‘98.

Despite his importance on those 49ers teams of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Hearst is rarely mentioned, much less remembered, due in part to his lack of longevity. In the context of NFL greatness, Hearst’s career can be interpreted as merely a blip on the radar screen. But many times it’s not always the big names that leave the most everlasting impression, and big moments are not always saved for the greatest players of all time. The same goes for memories. What Hearst may have lacked in career longevity was made up for by his affinity for the big play.

What I will remember most vividly are those two plays from 1998 juxtaposed together; the 96 yard run in Week 1, followed by the ankle injury in the playoffs. Hearst’s ’98 season captured exactly what being an NFL player can be. One minute, on top of the world as one of the top 3 rushers in the league. The next minute, written off as a one-hit wonder. Seeing Hearst at his highest, then at his lowest, was something I couldn’t comprehend as a kid; but now in retrospect, it provides a glimpse into the reality of being an NFL player.

Let us remember those players that left lasting impressions on our minds for their performance, even if only for a game.  After all, these guys are not only playing for a living, but for us, the fans;  specifically, for this fan.