It's a dirty job, but someone other than Ricky Watters has to do it. Ever since the San Francisco 49ers let Watters run off as a free agent to the Philadelphia Eagles in March 1995, they have searched for someone to restore the oomph to their backfield.
It's a dirty job, and Garrison Hearst thinks he is the man to do it. Last Thursday, a week after his surprise signing with the 49ers, Hearst stood in the driveway outside his house in Alpharetta, Ga., surrounded by expensive automobiles and damp rags. He had chosen this morning to wash his fleet: the '96 Porsche 911, the '97 Range Rover, the '93 Nissan 300 ZX and the '94 Mercedes 600 SL with the vanity plate that reads REAL G.
Hearst's handsome, stucco abode, with its soaring, arched windows, is among the more tasteful homes in this ultra-affluent enclave north of Atlanta. The irony of his living in a gated community called The Country Club of the South is not lost on Hearst, a native of rural Lincolnton, Ga. "There was a time when the only thing I'd be doing in a place like this would be cutting grass," he said, as he buffed a hubcap on the Mercedes.
Not to worry. Hearst, 26, is not living beyond his means. One gets the sense, however, while standing in Hearst's driveway and pondering the 5'11", 215-pound running back's accomplishments in four NFL seasons, that Hearst is living beyond his feats. What has he done to earn these wheels, this pad, this lifestyle?
Hearst rushed for 1,547 yards and scored 19 touchdowns as a junior at Georgia, but ever since he turned pro early and was taken by the Arizona Cardinals with the third overall pick of the 1993 NFL draft, we have seen only glimpses of the Real G. After surgery to repair ligaments in his left knee, which was damaged during the sixth game of his rookie season, Hearst missed the remainder of that year and eight games of the next. Even his breakout season in '95 was star-crossed; he rushed for 1,070 yards in what became one of the most maligned 1,000-yard rushing seasons in NFL history. Hearst's critics harped on the fact that he averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, fumbled 10 times (more than any other nonquarterback that year) and scored only one touchdown. Claimed off the waiver wire by the Cincinnati Bengals last August—the Cardinals had released him with the intention of re-signing him for less money—Hearst fought his way into the starting lineup five weeks into the '96 season and wound up rushing for 847 yards on 225 carries. Yes, he averaged 3.8 yards a carry again, but he fumbled only once last year.
Now Hearst is smiling like a man who believes he is on the verge of busting loose. Following 48 hours of whirlwind negotiations, San Francisco announced on March 7 that it had signed him to an incentive-laden, two-year deal that could pay him as much as $3.35 million but will count only $500,000 against the 1997 salary cap.
It's hard to tell who got the better end of this deal. For Hearst, the Niners offer deliverance from bad teams that had sometimes dealt with him in bad faith. For San Francisco, Hearst is the backfield weapon it has missed. First-year coach Steve Mariucci has repeatedly stated that the 49ers need to reestablish their running game. To that end, San Francisco pulled off a neat piece of cross-bay piracy shortly before landing Hearst, signing 325-pound free-agent guard Kevin Gogan, formerly of the Oakland Raiders.
Hearst would not be Bay Area-bound if this year's market for free-agent running backs had not been flatter than Olive Oyl. "This is as slow as it's ever been," said his agent, Pat Dye Jr. "No one has any money under the cap." (See Inside the NFL, page 74.)
The Cardinals and the San Diego Chargers expressed a mild interest in Hearst early on, then stopped returning Dye's calls. Dye was also in touch with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins, but those clubs ended up retaining their star backs, Jerome Bettis and Terry Allen, respectively. And on Friday, Feb. 28, Dye returned a call from Bengals assistant secretary and treasurer Paul H. Brown, who offered a three-year, $1.8 million contract. Last October the Bengals stepped up with a three-year deal averaging $1.35 million per year, but Hearst, intent on dipping a toe in the free-agent waters, had passed. Figuring he didn't want to ruin his client's weekend, Dye waited until the following Monday to tell Hearst about the Bengals' latest offer.
It would have been tough to make Hearst's weekend any worse than it already was. Earlier in the week Hearst's 24-year-old cousin, Frederick Norman, an Army sergeant based in Hawaii, had collapsed and died during physical training. Six weeks earlier Mose Gladmon, the father of Hearst's girlfriend, Concheta Gladmon, had died unexpectedly. On Jan. 4, Hearst's birthday, he attended the funeral of his paternal grandfather, who died on New Year's Day.