Resilient Hearst still starter at TB

A miracle of modern man, Garrison Hearst just keeps churning along, defying the odds and obstacles that have stacked up against him throughout his NFL career. The latest obstacle was supposed to be up-and-coming Kevan Barlow, but it is Hearst who once again will be the 49ers' starting tailback when he begins his 11th pro season Sunday against the Chicago Bears.

Hearst received the vote of approval earlier this week from coach Dennis Erickson to retain his starting role as the team's featured back. It's the third consecutive season Hearst will open as the team's starter after he returned from a career-threatening ankle condition that forced him to miss the 1999 and 2000 seasons.

Hearst also missed the majority of his first two NFL seasons with Arizona after suffering a knee injury that required surgery in his rookie year of 1993. He twice has been named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year - the only player in league history to hold that distinction.

Now, at age 32, Hearst is beginning his 11th season in the NFL at a position where most players don't last nearly that long.

"I feel blessed that I'm still able to play, considering the things I went through," Hearst said Thursday. "But I still feel like I can get better. With the opportunity, you've just got to go out and take advantage of it, because they're few and far now."

Hearst has shared carries the past two seasons with Barlow, the team's third-round draft pick in 2001. That didn't stop Hearst from gaining 1,206 yards on 252 carries and reaching the Pro Bowl that year. Last season, Hearst gained 972 yards and scored a career-high eight touchdowns rushing.

Barlow's workload and production increased from 125 carries for 512 yards rushing as a rookie to 145 carries for 675 yards last season. He continued to display solid and steady development during this past spring and summer, and his emergence was expected to perhaps squeeze Hearst out of the starting lineup this year.

But that didn't happen. While San Francisco coaches are impressed with Barlow's ability, Hearst's talent, experience, veteran leadership and savvy have kept a lock on the starting job.

"Garrison Hearst is an outstanding tailback," Erickson said. "Garrison is in a situation that has another outstanding tailback. We're going to split time with them. He's had a great career and will continue to. He knows what he can and can't do and we're going to take advantage of what he can do."

Erickson has indicated there will be more carries this season for Barlow, and the two tailbacks are expected to rotate series to begin the season against the Bears.

That doesn't seem to faze Hearst, who is the NFL's seventh-leading active rusher with 7,117 yards. He moved into fourth place last season on San Francisco's all-time career rushing list. Hearst has rushed for 4,767 yards in his four active seasons with the 49ers, including a team-record 1,570 in 1998.

"That's the coaches' decision about what they're going to do," Hearst said. "It's something I've got to deal with, so I just do it. I want to play, so whatever it takes to get on the field."

Barlow, who openly campaigned for the starter's role during training camp, missed two preseason games with a right hamstring strain. That gave the starting job to Hearst practically by default because of his experience, track record and relatively good health.

"That's fair," Barlow said. "It's only fair that Garrison gets the starting job, because he's been here working hard. He won it. But you never know. It might have been a different story if I was out here practicing and being able to compete for the job. They definitely would have had to think about who was the starter if I'd been out there."

Erickson indicated that might not have made much difference in the decision.

"Kevin will play a lot, but Garrison's our starter," Erickson said. "I don't know that I've ever seen resilience like Garrison Hearst. He loves playing the game. He just loves the game. He just loves being around his teammates. I guess if you could define the word 'true professional,' it would probably be Garrison Hearst."

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