It's a dirty job, but someone other than Ricky Watters has to do
it. Ever since the San Francisco 49ers let Watters run off as a
free agent to the Philadelphia Eagles in March 1995, they have
searched for someone to restore the oomph to their backfield.
It's a dirty job, and Garrison Hearst thinks he is the man to do
it. Last Thursday, a week after his surprise signing with the
49ers, Hearst stood in the driveway outside his house in
Alpharetta, Ga., surrounded by expensive automobiles and damp
rags. He had chosen this morning to wash his fleet: the '96
Porsche 911, the '97 Range Rover, the '93 Nissan 300 ZX and the
'94 Mercedes 600 SL with the vanity plate that reads REAL G.
Hearst's handsome, stucco abode, with its soaring, arched
windows, is among the more tasteful homes in this ultra-affluent
enclave north of Atlanta. The irony of his living in a gated
community called The Country Club of the South is not lost on
Hearst, a native of rural Lincolnton, Ga. "There was a time when
the only thing I'd be doing in a place like this would be
cutting grass," he said, as he buffed a hubcap on the Mercedes.
Not to worry. Hearst, 26, is not living beyond his means. One
gets the sense, however, while standing in Hearst's driveway
and pondering the 5'11", 215-pound running back's
accomplishments in four NFL seasons, that Hearst is living
beyond his feats. What has he done to earn these wheels, this
pad, this lifestyle?
Hearst rushed for 1,547 yards and scored 19 touchdowns as a
junior at Georgia, but ever since he turned pro early and was
taken by the Arizona Cardinals with the third overall pick of
the 1993 NFL draft, we have seen only glimpses of the Real G.
After surgery to repair ligaments in his left knee, which was
damaged during the sixth game of his rookie season, Hearst
missed the remainder of that year and eight games of the next.
Even his breakout season in '95 was star-crossed; he rushed for
1,070 yards in what became one of the most maligned 1,000-yard
rushing seasons in NFL history. Hearst's critics harped on the
fact that he averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, fumbled 10 times
(more than any other nonquarterback that year) and scored only
one touchdown. Claimed off the waiver wire by the Cincinnati
Bengals last August--the Cardinals had released him with the
intention of re-signing him for less money--Hearst fought his
way into the starting lineup five weeks into the '96 season and
wound up rushing for 847 yards on 225 carries. Yes, he averaged
3.8 yards a carry again, but he fumbled only once last year.
Now Hearst is smiling like a man who believes he is on the verge
of busting loose. Following 48 hours of whirlwind negotiations,
San Francisco announced on March 7 that it had signed him to an
incentive-laden, two-year deal that could pay him as much as
$3.35 million but will count only $500,000 against the 1997
It's hard to tell who got the better end of this deal. For
Hearst, the Niners offer deliverance from bad teams that had
sometimes dealt with him in bad faith. For San Francisco, Hearst
is the backfield weapon it has missed. First-year coach Steve
Mariucci has repeatedly stated that the 49ers need to
reestablish their running game. To that end, San Francisco
pulled off a neat piece of cross-bay piracy shortly before
landing Hearst, signing 325-pound free-agent guard Kevin Gogan,
formerly of the Oakland Raiders.
Hearst would not be Bay Area-bound if this year's market for
free-agent running backs had not been flatter than Olive Oyl.
"This is as slow as it's ever been," said his agent, Pat Dye Jr.
"No one has any money under the cap." (See Inside the NFL, page
The Cardinals and the San Diego Chargers expressed a mild
interest in Hearst early on, then stopped returning Dye's calls.
Dye was also in touch with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the
Washington Redskins, but those clubs ended up retaining their
star backs, Jerome Bettis and Terry Allen, respectively. And on
Friday, Feb. 28, Dye returned a call from Bengals assistant
secretary and treasurer Paul H. Brown, who offered a three-year,
$1.8 million contract. Last October the Bengals stepped up with
a three-year deal averaging $1.35 million per year, but Hearst,
intent on dipping a toe in the free-agent waters, had passed.
Figuring he didn't want to ruin his client's weekend, Dye waited
until the following Monday to tell Hearst about the Bengals'
It would have been tough to make Hearst's weekend any worse than
it already was. Earlier in the week Hearst's 24-year-old cousin,
Frederick Norman, an Army sergeant based in Hawaii, had
collapsed and died during physical training. Six weeks earlier
Mose Gladmon, the father of Hearst's girlfriend, Concheta
Gladmon, had died unexpectedly. On Jan. 4, Hearst's birthday, he
attended the funeral of his paternal grandfather, who died on
New Year's Day.
"It's been a hard, hard winter," says Mary Hearst, Garrison's
mother. "But we're a close family, and we're pulling through."
Mary, 42, is a junior business major at Augusta State
University. She and Garrison, who is about a year short of
receiving a degree in social work, have a small wager on who
will get a diploma first. "It's a bet I wouldn't mind losing,"
The fragility of a football career--hence, the importance of an
education--became apparent to Hearst in October '93. Turning
upfield, he was shoved by Redskins linebacker Carl Banks.
Hearst's body turned, but his left foot remained planted, and
his knee was seriously damaged.
While Hearst rehabilitated the knee in the off-season, the
Cardinals fired coach Joe Bugel and replaced him with Buddy
Ryan. Doctors had told Hearst that his rehab would take 12
months, but an impatient Ryan seldom missed an opportunity to
question Hearst's toughness and commitment. During training camp
Ryan forced Hearst (and other injured players) to push a
wheelbarrow full of sand around the field.
What do you know? Once Hearst was back in the lineup at full
strength and started tearing off long runs, Ryan became his best
pal. "Buddy prejudged me," recalls Hearst. "Once he got to know
me, once he realized I wasn't afraid to work hard, I was one of
Ask Bengals cornerback Jimmy Spencer about Hearst's work ethic.
Formerly of the New Orleans Saints, Spencer has a house in
Kenner, La., and hosted a half dozen Bengals there during Super
Bowl week in New Orleans in January. "We'd all be sitting
around, eating, drinking and watching TV, and Garrison would be
on the floor doing push-ups and sit-ups," says Spencer. "After a
while, it started to tick everyone off. So we just started
yelling at him."
Spencer was one of many Cincinnati players who were scratching
their heads over the organization's decision to acquire Hearst
in the first place. "A lot of guys were asking, 'What are we
doing? We already have a good back we're paying a lot of money
to,'" says Spencer, referring to Ki-Jana Carter, whom the
Bengals traded up to select with the first overall pick in the
1995 draft and then signed to a seven-year, $19.2 million
contract. "'We need defensive players.' Then I saw him hit the
hole a few times, and I said, 'Well, now I see what we're doing.'"
A third of the way through the season, Hearst had beaten out
Carter, who was coming back from knee surgery that sidelined him
for his entire rookie year. Despite playing behind a line that
gave up 47 sacks and despite sharing time with Carter and Eric
Bieniemy, Hearst finished the season with five of the six best
rushing games by a Bengal since 1992 and helped lead the team to
seven wins in its last nine games.
Thus Dye's distress when the Bengals made their $600,000-a-year
offer--less than Bieniemy's average annual salary. The day
before, 49ers director of football operations Dwight Clark had
returned a call from Dye, "out of politeness, more than
anything," Clark recalls. "In my mind Garrison was a $2
million-a-year player. There was just no way [San Francisco
could fit such a salary under the cap]."
Clark humored Dye, then hung up. During another phone
conversation the following Monday, when Clark reiterated his
skepticism about signing Hearst, Dye cut him off, saying,
"Dwight, get with your people, and come up with a cap number we
can work from."
When Clark finally named a sum of $300,000, Dye wasn't
discouraged. "For the first time, I felt like I'd gotten through
to them," he says. Late on the afternoon of March 5, Dye faxed
the 49ers a proposal. Clark countered four hours later. The
following day the two sides settled on a contract that will pay
Hearst a $600,000 signing bonus, $200,000 in base salary in '97
and $550,000 in incentives this season, including $300,000 that
Dye calls "slam dunk." Hearst will be rewarded for such trifling
accomplishments as rushing for one touchdown or catching two
At the press conference to announce the signing, Mariucci
reminded everyone that Terry Kirby was still the starting
tailback. If he stays healthy, Hearst could change that.
"Garrison is a pure running back," Clark says, "and we haven't
had that in a long time." Two years, to be exact.
While dining at Bone's, a high-end steakhouse in Buckhead, north
of downtown Atlanta, Dye was already thinking ahead to '98, when
Hearst will earn $1 million in base salary and, provided he is
on the 80-man roster next Feb. 15, a $1 million bonus. If the
Niners like what they see in Hearst this season, the considerate
Dye said, "We would be willing to renegotiate and do something
long-term, something more cap-friendly."
Hearst arrived at the restaurant wearing a flashy suit and a
pair of gleaming, two-tone shoes not unlike those favored by
untrustworthy men in The Untouchables. The maitre d' treated
Hearst's entrance like the return of the prodigal son. Mr.
Hearst! So nice to have you back!
When a 12-ounce filet was placed in front of him, Mr. Hearst
sent it back. "I asked for medium well," he said. While his
client waited for his entree, Dye distracted him with happy
speculation: "I see [49ers quarterback] Steve Young dropping
back. I see the other team's defensive ends bearing down on him.
I see him tucking the ball in your stomach. I see you off in the
"I see it, too," Hearst said, smiling.
Perhaps next fall we will finally see the Real G.