On Sunday, Garrison Hearst returns home to the scene of the crime. At least, it was a crime what happened to him the last time he played against the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome.
After setting a 49ers record with 1,570 yards rushing during a stellar Pro Bowl season in 1998, Hearst returned triumphantly to the city in which he resides in the offseason for a divisional playoff showdown with the Falcons. On the first play from scrimmage in that Jan. 9, 1999, game, Hearst broke his left ankle - beginning a two-year labyrinth of surgeries and slow recovery that resulted due to a form of bone necrosis that developed after the injury. But after two years out of the NFL, Hearst is back. And if his last two games are any indication, he looks to be almost all the way back.
Hearst has rushed for 169 yards in his past two games, and his 227 yards on 56 carries this season rank him fifth in the NFC entering Sunday's game against the Falcons. That game happens to be Hearst's first in the Georgia Dome since his career almost ended there with the devastating injury.
"I don't think that will bother me at all," Hearst said. "More than anything, we're just going back there to win the game." Hearst says he doesn't look at this game as more than it is. But Sunday probably represents the final step in his amazing comeback. By coming home to play before his family and friends - in the place he was injured - it means Hearst has come full circle. "My mom says she can finally watch me play a little bit now," Hearst said. "She was still a little more scared than I was. She doesn't like to watch a game because she's still more worried. But I was counting on myself to be out there. I'm happy to be back. But I always felt I would be back."
Coach Steve Mariucci realizes Sunday may be more than just an ordinary day in Hearst's amazing comeback. The coach already has realized how much that comeback has meant to his team. "He's going back to the place he got hurt and it's his hometown. I'm sure he's going to be anxious to carry the ball and play," Mariucci said. "I'm really proud of Garrison. He's getting better every week, getting stronger and more confident almost to a point where he doesn't worry much about that ankle anymore. We're relying on him. Here's a guy that a few months ago we didn't even know if he was going to be on our team or not, and now we're counting on him to help us win games. It's really something."