”He has so many moves that, if you blink twice, you might miss four or five of them and he`ll be in the end zone.”
– Lynn Swann commenting on Garrison Hearst
His name sounded sublime, like an army of newspaper moguls. But as it was repeated it sounded like something out of a royal line or perhaps even an old Victorian novel.
Hearst, a 5-foot-11, 202-pound shifting, cutting, ball of rage, burst out on the Southeastern Conference football scene in 1990. The new kid on the block from Lincolnton, Georgia, made his auspicious debut in Georgia’s third game of the season, no doubt a big one, against Alabama in Athens. That fine fall day, Hearst rushed for 106 yards on 16 carries to propel the Bulldogs to a 17-16 victory.
If you remember, Hearst’s freshman season coincided with head coach Ray Goff’s second campaign “Between the Hedges.” Goff, a former Georgia quarterback who finished seventh in the Heisman voting in 1976, took over the Georgia program after legendary head coach Vince Dooley retired in 1988.
In 1990, Hearst rushed for 717 yards on 162 attempts, and was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise uninspiring 4-7 season in Athens.
The next year, however, Hearst and new quarterback Eric Zeier became a formidable 1-2 punch, and the Bulldogs reversed course and went 9-3. Although many considered Georgia to be a pass-happy team, Hearst rushed for 968 yards on 153 attempts and scored nine rushing touchdowns. He also caught 16 passes on the year for 177 yards. As a portent for opposing defenses the next season, Hearst finished the 1991 season with 100 yards rushing in three of the last four games.
Georgia finished fourth in the SEC, which, at the time, was not separated into divisions. In retrospect, fourth was not bad, considering Goff was competing against coaches Steve Spurrier, Gene Stallings, Johnny Majors, Jackie Sherrill, Pat Dye, and Billy Brewer. On December 29 of that year, the Bulldogs defeated Arkansas 24-15 in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport for Goff’s first bowl win.
Georgia’s ascent under Goff reached a pinnacle in 1992, Hearst’s junior season. The Bulldogs, by that time a member of the SEC East, would post a 6-2 conference mark—their only losses to Tennessee and Florida—on the way to an 10-2 season and a trip to the Citrus Bowl. Had the Bulldogs defeated Florida on October 31 in Jacksonville, Georgia, and not Florida, would have faced Alabama in the inaugural SEC Championship Game at Legion Field in Birmingham. But Spurrier’s team, led by quarterback Shane Matthews, squeaked by with a 26-24 victory over the sixth-ranked Bulldogs.
Before the Florida game, Hearst was in the midst of the best season of his career and was a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender—“Hearst for Heisman” fans clamored. But Florida held the running back to only 41 yards rushing on the day. Nevertheless, Hearst gained his footing in the last few games of the season and finished third in the Heisman voting behind San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk and eventual winner Gino Torretta, quarterback of the Miami Hurricanes.
Hearst took home the Doak Walker award as the nation’s best running back and had arguably a better year than Faulk. In addition to setting the all-time SEC scoring mark with 126 points on the year, Hearst rushed for 1,547 yards on 228 attempts (a 6.8 yards-per-attempt average). He scored 19 rushing touchdowns, had two receiving touchdowns, and 1,871 total yards from scrimmage. He chewed up over 7 yards every time he touched the ball on his way to an All-American selection.
Of course, any Georgia running back in the post-Herschel era will be invariably compared to that great back, but Hearst was the first of his kind to post better statistical numbers than Walker—at least for a time—during that 1992 season. And, hard as it is may be to believe now, in those days Hearst and the Georgia Bulldogs were covered sparsely by national media, a dynamic that ultimately limited his recognition and did not help his Heisman candidacy.
Nevertheless, Hearst was drafted by the Phoenix (later Arizona) Cardinals as the third overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft. He played for a total of 12 seasons in the NFL (10 active) and rushed for 7,966 yards and 30 touchdowns. Perhaps his greatest NFL moment occurred on September 6, 1998, when Hearst was playing for the San Francisco 49ers. In overtime with the game tied at 30 against the New York Jets, the running back broke free and huffed and puffed his way for 96 yards before collapsing in the end zone for the winning score.
Though Hearst drew many comparisons, Goff probably described him best. ”He`s a little bit like Rodney Hampton, a pure runner with great vision,” Goff said. ”He`s got good hands like Keith Henderson and is a physical runner like Herschel and Lars Tate. I`ve said many times (Hearst) is the most complete back we`ve ever had at Georgia. One of the most impressive things about him is watching him when he`s supposed to block a linebacker on a blitz. The guy will go out just as fast as he came in.” H&A
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