Hearst named NFL Comeback Player of Year

<P>Nobody in the NFL this season - or maybe ever - could match the comeback of Garrison Hearst. That was almost a unanimous opinion around the league as Hearst was named The Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year on Thursday.

Hearst received 47 of the 50 votes cast by a nationwide panel of football writers, and you've kind of got to wonder about the three writers who didn't vote for Hearst.

It's hard to imagine that any player - perhaps in NFL history - has had to endure as much as the Niners' Pro Bowl tailback to get back on the field. And Hearst didn't just come back this season after missing the previous two years with a career-threatening ankle condition. He returned as a star, finishing fifth in the NFC in rushing with 1,206 yards. After breaking his left ankle in a Jan. 9, 1999 playoff game, Hearst developed a rare form of bone necrosis during his recovery and had five surgeries over the next two years to correct the problem.

He is believed to be the first player ever to come back from such a condition, and this season he become the only player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards after a two-year layoff.

 "It's the best story of the year, and the best story around here for a while," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "He means a whole lot to this team in the locker room, on the practice field, in the games. He's a leader and an inspiration to everybody." The 49ers are returning to the playoffs this season for the first time since 1998. That also was the last time Hearst played before this season. He set a franchise record with 1,570 yards before being injured in the playoffs that season.

With Hearst in the lineup, the 49ers are 35-10 during the regular season since 1997, when Hearst joined the team as a free agent. This is the second time Hearst as been named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. He also earned the Victor Award as NFL Comeback Player of the Year with Arizona in 1995 after returning from a severe knee injury.

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