The big non-surprise: Hearst wins Eshmont Award

<P>In perhaps the biggest non-surprise of this astonishing 49ers' season, tailback Garrison Hearst on Thursday was named the recipient of the 2001 Len Eshmont Award as the team's most inspirational and courageous player. </P>

Considering Hearst missed the past two seasons with a career-threatening ankle injury that required five surgeries, then returned this season to add his veteran presence and the usual spark of his refreshing personality to a young team, Hearst was an obvious choice for the honor.

Though the final voting was not revealed, it is believed Hearst won in a landslide, ending the three-year Eshmont reign of Bryant Young, the defensive tackle who had won the award four of the past five seasons and last year became the first four-time winner in the 45-year history of the team's most prestigious honor.

The only person surprised by the winner this year was the winner himself. "It did," Hearst said Thursday. "I was over there talking junk the whole time (coach Steve Mariucci) was announcing it. I thought Bryant won it again."

Hearst has amazed NFL observers far and wide this season by making it all the way back from a form of bone necrosis in his ankle in 1999 that made it unlikely he ever would play again. It is believed he is the first NFL player ever to return from such a condition. Hearst hasn't just returned, he has returned to top form. He is fourth among NFC rushers with 1,114 yards on 226 carries, a healthy 4.9 average per carry. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his three active seasons with the Niners and, with two games still remaining, already has rushed for the second-highest season total of his career.

Hearst rushed for a team-record 1,570 yards with the Niners in 1998 before he was injured during the playoffs that season. Hearst is the second 49er to rush for 1,000 yards three times in his career and has moved up to seventh on the team's all-time career list. He is the only player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 or more yards after a two-year layoff. Hearst said his first Eshmont Award was special because of what it represents.

"It's a great deal, man," he said. "That's the Bryant Young Award. I know it's the Len Eshmont, but (Young's) picture's up there so much (on the 49ers' honor wall), I feel like I might just put a picture of him and just say my name under it. Yeah, it's quite an honor, because my teammates voted for it. Any time you get an award from your teammates, it's definitely an honor for me.

"For me, it's one of the enjoyments of being back to receive an achievement like this from my teammates. Hopefully things just keep getting better from here." Mariucci, among others, are sure they will. Hearst has four 100-yard games this season and was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Indianapolis on Nov. 25.

He appears to be a lock to win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award, which Hearst also won in 1995 when he was with the Arizona Cardinals. "(The Eshmont) is a well-deserved honor for Garrison," Mariucci said. "But I've got a feeling that's not going to be the last award he wins."

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