The 49ers are a landmark and historic franchise. From Joe Montana to Steve Young and players like Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Ronnie Lott, Terrell Owens, and Dwight Clark, the team has a rich history of hall-of-fame players. Cough, cough, put Roger Craig in the Hall of Fame, by the way. With so many historic players wearing red and gold, it’s easy to overlook or forget certain players and their accomplishments.
When I was tasked with figuring out which 49er player should be remembered more, plenty of names popped into my head. How can you narrow it down to one? Which position would it be? Which player deserves more praise for their contributions? Again, when dealing with this team and its history, this isn’t an easy choice.
There is no right or wrong answer, but I landed on running back Garrison Hearst.
After spending four seasons with the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals, Hearst joined the 49ers in 1997. In 13 games, Hearst racked up 1,019 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns, and two receiving touchdowns, and averaged 78.4 rushing yards per game.
It was 1998 when Hearst posted his finest season as a professional. Think back to Week 1 of 98, and you’ll see visions of Hearst’s 98-yard run in overtime to defeat the Jets. When it was all said and done, Hearst’s season ended with 1,570 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns, 5.1 yards per carry (best in the NFL), 98.1 rushing yards per game, 535 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns, 2,105 yards from scrimmage, and a pro bowl berth.
Unfortunately, Hearst suffered a devastating leg injury in Atlanta on the opening play of the NFC divisional against the Falcons. The injury was diagnosed as a broken fibula, and many believe if Hearst plays the 49ers advance. Terry Kirby relieved Hearst but was dealing with an injury of his own (sustained on covering a punt in the same game), and the league’s best-rushing attack suddenly was no more.
Rice spoke after the game about the 49ers and their gameplan: “We expected to come in and establish the running game.” Young, who threw three interceptions, said: “I tried to play perfectly, and I made too many mistakes.” and “Once Garrison and Terry were hurt, we had to throw. We loaded up and tried to get it done that way.”
Losing 20-18 in a playoff game is a tough pill to swallow, but the injury Hearst suffered would cost him the next two seasons. The long road to recovery finally led Hearst back on the field in 2001. Considering how difficult and mentally taxing Hearst’s return must have been, racking up 1,206 rushing yards in 16 games is all the more impressive. Earning AP comeback player of the year was quite the reward.
Hearst played two more seasons for the 49ers and posted solid rushing numbers of 972 (16 games) and 768 yards (12 games). Pro football reference has a stat called approximate value (AV), which helps decide a player’s impact each season.
In Hearst’s 1998 pro bowl season, pro football reference assigned an AV of 18. After his return from the fibula injury, Hearst earned an AV of 16. Only one of Hearst’s five seasons (2003) in San Francisco saw Hearst earn an AV under 10.
Perhaps, Hearst doesn’t get remembered because of his five seasons as a 49er. Maybe it’s because of how many great running backs 49ers fans have been able to witness.
Either way, when I think about players who deserve more recognition, I think about Garrison Hearst and his five seasons as a 49er.
Which 49ers player do you believe deserves to be remembered more?