To most fans of football, Garrison Hearst was the outstanding 49ers running back that was plagued with injuries.
To others, he is just the hometown kid that would later become a record-setting running back for the Georgia Bulldogs.
For most football stars, their stories in the NFL are recorded and broadcast to millions of people eager to watch.
garrison hearst is an all pro back who was possibly the best in the league for a time with the steve young TO jerry rice offense but his career spiraled after a wild card round injury where his foot got stuck in the georgia dome turf
— ☆ (@G33P_) February 6, 2022
However, this story will tell of the times when Hearst was more than an NFL star, but a hometown hero and college legend.
Early Life Of Garrison Hearst
Garrison Hearst’s football career started at Lincoln County High school in Lincolnton, Georgia.
He made a name for himself in high school, dominating the field throughout high school, even winning the Georgia State Championship one year.
The year Hearst led his team to the State Championship, there is a story that shows how versatile of an athlete Garrison was.
Circumstances came about that the fullback position and cornerback position both needed to be filled for the championship game.
Hearst would go on to fill both spots, having never played a down of football at either position in his life, and would continue to lead his team to victory from his new positions.
Hearst would go on to intercept a pass late in the fourth quarter, leading to the winning touchdown that won Lincoln County High School the State Championship.
However, parents and fans weren’t the only people in the stands that day, as scouts had already started flocking to watch Hearst play.
Hearst became a hot topic for SEC (Southeastern Conference) scouting teams and had to go to great lengths to escape the media and scouts from other teams.
The two highest teams on his list were the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Georgia Bulldogs.
As we know now, he would end up choosing the Bulldogs over the Gamecocks, but many think the coaching staff may have influenced that decision, granted that most of the coaching staff were Bulldogs fans themselves.
Either way, the all-star tailback from Lincoln County High School took his talents to the Bulldogs, where he would eventually become one of the best tailbacks in Georgia football history.
Starting His College Days
Hearst’s awards and accolades didn’t start rolling in right away when he came to Georgia.
As a freshman, Hearst was not a college superstar immediately.
He started his collegiate football career in 1990 and put-up respectable numbers, but not good enough when playing in the SEC.
Georgia was an awful 4-7 in Hearst’s freshmen year and ended the season 72nd out of the 107 teams in the FBS.
A slow start to the college career of one of Georgia’s best tailbacks.
Walker is the given. But when I was a kid, Garrison Hearst was my favorite. pic.twitter.com/vvECSEWwxm
— Robbie Norman (@RobbieNorman) February 16, 2022
His sophomore season was a bit more hopeful than his previous season.
The Georgia Bulldogs would go on to be 9-3 and rank 21st in the FBS, a major step forward for Georgia.
Georgia would go on to win the Independence Bowl Game, not considered a Bowl game for the top teams, but an improvement from the disastrous 1990 season.
He would go on to have almost double the rushing touchdowns he had in 1990 and even rushed 200+ more yards.
His true potential was starting to shine during the 1991 season, but this improvement only hinted at the true ability of this gifted tailback.
Becoming A Bulldog Legend
The 1992 season started strong for Hearst and the Bulldogs, winning 7 of their first 8 games and ending the season overall 10-2.
Not only was this season a great team season for the Georgia Bulldogs, but it would also be Hearst’s biggest statistical year of his college career.
Hearst put up over 1,500+ yards and 19 touchdowns during the 1992 season, as well averaging 6.8 yards per carry.
These monumental stats helped push Hearst from being an average college football player to becoming one of the best tailbacks in Georgia football history.
He would end up leading the Bulldogs to a victory in the Citrus Bowl over The Ohio State University, capping off his final season in college football.
However, despite the season being over, Hearst had set statistical records that would write his name into Georgia and SEC record books forever.
Breaking records was nothing new to the Lincoln County High school all-star, but through his first two seasons in collegiate football, he hadn’t broken a single record.
That all changed the 1992 season where Hearst wasn’t only breaking Georgia Bulldog records, he was breaking SEC records.
During the season, Hearst broke four out of the five most attributable stats for a running back, most points in a season, most rushing touchdowns, most total touchdowns, and highest average yards per carry.
These records wouldn’t last forever, but they play a small part in keeping Hearst immortalized in college football history.
The achievements didn’t end there for him during his junior year.
He went on to receive three prestigious awards including being an All-American selection, a recipient of the Doak Walker Award, and SEC Player of the Year, as well as finish third for the Heisman race in 1992.
While records will be broken and trophies will fade away, these once again help secure Hearst’s place in college football history.
While in 1992 you couldn’t walk far in Georgia without hearing the name Garrison Hearst, today he is more of a distant memory of all-stars from years past.
However, if you look back to the Georgia record books, you can still find Hearst written all over it, even to this day.
Sitting at number 8 all-time for rushes in a season, 6th in career rushes, and 4th for most rushing yards in a season, Hearst is still among some of the best Georgia tailbacks to ever play for the Bulldogs.
However, there is still one of Hearst’s records that has remained untouched, rushing touchdowns in a season.
This record not only still stands as a Georgia Bulldog record but as an SEC record.
Hearst may be a name only true Georgia Bulldog fans remember clearly, but he deserves to go down as one of the best tailbacks in SEC history.
Early NFL Years
Hearst’s college days made a huge impact on the perception NFL teams had for him.
The Arizona Cardinals drafted Hearst with the 3rd overall pick in the 1993 draft.
Hearst was the first running back taken in the 1993 draft and only drafted behind Drew Bledsoe (New England) and Rick Mirer (Seattle).
Unfortunately, he started off his NFL career rather slowly.
Not getting many touches in his first two seasons with the Cardinals, he was perceived as a waste of a first-round draft pick.
However, the 1995 season, Hearst’s third year in the league, would be when he proved his ability to play at the professional level.
Despite the Cardinals going 4-12 during the 1995 season, Hearst had by far his best season to date in the NFL.
Ranking 12th in the NFL in rushing in 1995, the increase in production and the work ethic of Hearst would put him on a crass course with success.
Hearst would go on to receive the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award alongside Jim Harbaugh.
Despite this outstanding performance, the Arizona Cardinals would release Hearst after the season, leaving him available to be picked up by another team to utilize his talents.
That team was the Cincinnati Bengals.
Hearst performed well in his one and only season with the Bengals, nearly matching his previous year’s stellar performance.
It is usually a bad sign for a player to be on three teams within three years in the middle of their prime football playing years.
However, this third team, the San Fransisco 49ers, would end up being Hearst’s best years of football playing in the NFL.
Hearst would fit perfectly within the 49er’s offense, led by the infamous Steve Young.
Terry Kirby would start the first three games of the 1997 season for San Fransisco, but Hearst would quickly take over, starting the last 13 games of the season and contributing to the 13-3 record that San Fransisco would put up that year.
The 49ers led by Steve Young and Hearst would fall short of making the Super Bowl, losing to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
However, Hearst was just starting to make his impact on the 49er’s organization and would have the most memorable season of his career in 1998.
The 1998 Season And Heartbreaking Injury
The 1998 season with the 49er’s is when Hearst went from a good running back in the NFL, to a great one.
Garrison Hearst pic.twitter.com/ijIPH48mYQ
— Djon Mustard. The ‘D’ is silent. (@M1K3EvansTD) January 29, 2022
However, all good things must come to an end, and for Hearst, the end of the 1998 season would put his entire future in football at risk.
Hearst took the NFL by storm and turned the 49er’s offense into a threat for any defense.
Placed alongside the lethal passing and receiving game of Steve Young and Jerry Rice, Hearst provided a rushing game that kept the 49er’s offense rolling.
While going 12-4 as a team overall, the 49ers were the third-highest scoring team, with Hearst contributing 9 total TDs to the cause.
Hearst’s impressive stats only begin there, as he also set a franchise record in rushing yards in the 1998 season with 1,570 rushing yards.
Hearst would have the most rushing yards in the entire NFL and would, for the first time in his NFL career, etch his name into the record books.
Alongside this, Hearst would be selected for his very first Pro Bowl, joining his teammates Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
However, before Hearst could be worried about the Pro Bowl, his eyes stayed locked on the goal at hand, the playoffs.
San Fransisco barely beat the Packers 30-27 in the Wild Card Round, the same team that last year knocked them out of Super Bowl contention.
The next game was the divisional round of the playoffs against the Atlanta Falcons.
Little did Hearst know that this game would change his future in football forever.
Garrison Hearst lines up in the backfield of the first play from scrimmage.
Thousands of fans screaming to try and mess up the offense.
Steve Young receives the snap, hands the ball off to Garrison.
Garrison runs, gets hit, and spins his way to a solid 7-yard gain.
However, the 49er’s standout running back would yell in pain, having twisted his left ankle in an extremely awkward angle.
Hearst would spend the rest of the game in the locker room, as he helplessly hears his beloved 49ers fall to the Atlanta Falcons 18-20.
Hearst had broken his fibula, which through some complications, led to avascular necrosis.
While football players in the NFL break bones all the time, the addition of avascular necrosis to Garrison Hearst’s situation left him sidelined the entire 1999 and 2000 seasons.
Hearst’s injury, while taking only moments to break his fibula, would take over 32 months of rehab and a shocking seven surgeries to get the pro athlete back to his NFL form.
Even playing football again was a miracle for Garrison Hearst.
Not only is staying in shape extremely hard for professional athletes through recovery, but Garrison Hearst was also told by specialists that he would never play football again.
Hearst said “One specialist I saw a few months after the injury told me to start preparing for life after football, and I know a lot of people around here thought I was through”.
However, as Hearst puts it:
“Those people didn’t know what was inside of me.”
Hearst would go on to continually work on rehab and trying his absolute best to get himself back into football shape.
Despite some thinking Hearst would never play a down of football again in his life, others thought he would return to the NFL.
However, nobody could’ve predicted the breakout season Garrison Hearst would return with.
Well, nobody but Hearst could.
Returning To The NFL
While Hearst was out with injuries, the San Fransisco 49ers were struggling.
During the 1999 and 2000 seasons, the 49ers were unable to maintain a winning record, going 4-12 and 6-10 respectively.
Hearst would be a much-needed addition to the team to try and bring the 49ers back to their winning ways.
Many fans were still wondering whether the 49ers could’ve made a deeper playoff run in 1998 if Hearst had not been injured.
Losing to the Falcons 20-18 was still a sour taste in 49ers fan’s mouth.
However, Hearst wasn’t focused on the past, but more so on the future.
His return to the NFL only happened because of the dedication and high spirits that Hearst brought to his recovery process and to the game of football.
His return would also mean the 49ers would regain their star running back and have a chance at greatness once again.
Garrison Hearst returned to the pitch on September 9th, 2001, where he would be face to face with the same team that he had last faced in 1998, the Atlanta Falcons.
The crowd was fanatic at the star running backs return, hopeful, that Hearst could lead their team to victory once again.
Hearst would go on to help the 49ers win in overtime against the Falcons, proving that Hearst was still the outstanding and driven running back he had left as.
This game holds a special place in Hearst’s heart, as he was proud to help his team beat the same team that he had injured himself playing all those years ago.
Hearst’s performance in this game was only a precursor for the season however, as much more greatness was to come for Hearst during the 2001 season
After the impressive OT win over the Atlanta Falcons, Hearst would continue rolling over opposing defenses all season.
He finished the 2001 regular season with stats rivaling his standout season in 1998.
Hearst would rush for over 1,200 yards, 4 touchdowns, and an impressive 4.8 yards per rush.
These stats go to show the impressive comeback of Hearst, as well as prove to the league that despite a near career-ending injury, Hearst was not done yet.
Hearst’s return turned the San Fransisco 49ers back into the winning franchise that they were known for.
The 49ers went 12-4 during the 2001 season, making it their first winning record since Garrison had left the pitch.
In addition to the impressive stats that Hearst put up, the honors soon followed.
He was unsurprisingly named the Comeback Player of the Year in 2001, for his impressive return from a devastating injury.
Hearst also received an invitation to his 2nd and last Pro Bowl of his career.
Despite the amazing performance from Hearst and the 49ers throughout the regular season, they fell in the Wild Card Game to the Packers 15-25.
However, this does not shadow over Hearst’s season, as he overcame obstacles left and right to even play football again, let alone be invited to the pro bowl and receive Comeback Player of the Year.
The story of Hearst’s breakout season in 1998, followed by injuries, but finished in glory, is seen by many as one of the most inspirational stories in NFL history.
After The NFL
Hearst would go on to play for the 49ers for two more seasons.
He slowly received less and less attention, despite putting up impressive stats, and was later released in 2003 by the 49ers.
The Denver Broncos swept up Hearst, but his impact there was miniscule, only getting called in for key third-down conversions.
He would end up breaking his hand during the season and that would be the end of Hearst’s career in football, but not the end of his impact.
His story would live on in the hearts and minds of Georgia Bull Dog and 49ers fans for a long time.
Most combined regular season and playoff scrimmage yards in a season – @49ers history:
2502- Roger Craig (1988)
2255- Garrison Hearst (1998)
2180- Frank Gore (2006)
2107- Roger Craig(1985)
2014- Deebo Samuel (2021, as he has a TD on 56 total yds tonight)
2006- Jerry Rice (1996) pic.twitter.com/6HqMJyV3Jx
— StatsCentre (@StatsCentre) January 31, 2022
While Hearst is not commonly brought up when talking about great athletes from NFL’s past, his story is still an inspiration of dedication and grit.
From 2005 through now, Hearst has mainly stayed out of the spotlight.
His focus shifted from football to family and is now focused on being a husband to his wife, Jennifer, and a father to his four children.
The oldest of those four children, Gerard Hearst, is currently following in his father’s path as a running back in the state of Georgia.
In 2022, Hearst has been selected to be on the 2022 Hall of Fame Ballot, an honor, reserved for the most impactful and outstanding NFL athletes in all of the NFL’s history.
Alongside him on the Ballot is star cornerback Champ Bailey, who is also a Georgia Bulldog Alumni.
The two NFL stars will become the 16th and 17th Georgia Bulldogs in the Hall of Fame.
This honor brings an end to the awards and accomplishments that Hearst would bring to football.
However, his impact on the game and the people around him will continue long after he is gone, and the memories of his performance in college and the NFL, will be etched into the minds of every single person who had the honor and privilege to watch him.