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RUSH to the Super Bowl
Michael Silver
December 29, 1997
The Steelers, 49ers, Chiefs and Packers all have two things a team needs to reach the title game: a strong running attack and a week off
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December 29, 1997

Rush To The Super Bowl

The Steelers, 49ers, Chiefs and Packers all have two things a team needs to reach the title game: a strong running attack and a week off

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"You think about things that have happened and where you've been," Allen says. "I won the San Diego County championship [with Lincoln High] at San Diego Stadium—it kills me to think it's called Qualcomm now—and then you think about coming back, and it starts to seem like destiny. You can't help but visualize, but for me it seems very real, almost tangible. I wonder, Is this supposed to happen? I don't believe in coincidences."


The 49ers' signing of Hearst to a two-year, incentive-laden deal, one that ultimately figures to pay him more than $3 million, was indisputably one of the best moves of the off-season. The only question is, Who got the better of the deal?

San Francisco desperately needed Hearst, its first rushing threat since Watters jumped to the Philadelphia Eagles as a restricted free agent following the '94 season. But whereas Watters was reviled for his selfishness—a 49ers teammate once altered a team photo by gluing cutouts of Watters's face over those of everyone pictured—Hearst is a locker room favorite, whom one coach calls "the anti-Watters." Hearst "has made a huge difference," says offensive line assistant Bobb McKittrick. "People can't play us the way Green Bay did the last two years, using various types of the nickel defense for 60 to 70 percent of the game."

Having spent his first four seasons playing for two of the worst organizations in the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals and the Cincinnati Bengals, Hearst is as excited to be with the Niners as they are to have him. He laughs when asked to compare San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo with Arizona counterpart Bill Bidwill. "When I first got here, Mr. DeBartolo introduced himself, and he knew everything about me," Hearst says. "The only time you'd see Bidwill was when it was time to eat—then he'd appear out of nowhere. I don't even think he likes football players. You'd see him coming down the hall, and he'd do everything he could to avoid you."

The third pick in the '93 draft, Hearst severely sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee during his rookie season and had surgery. He ran for 1,070 yards in '95, but he mostly struggled while playing for the Cardinals, who cut him for salary-cap reasons before the '96 season. "That organization was the worst," he says. "Guys hated coming to work. One time two players got into a fistfight in our locker room a couple of hours before the game."

In his first season with San Francisco, Hearst rushed for 1,019 yards, despite missing the last three games with a broken left clavicle. Now the 49ers might have to win at least one playoff game without him. Hearst, who turns 27 on Jan. 4, might not be available until the NFC Championship Game, if San Francisco gets that far. Without him the Niners must rely on Terry Kirby, an effective receiver who lacks Hearst's explosiveness at the line. "We have to have the running game to go where we want to go," says Kirk Scrafford, the Niners' right tackle. "Garrison's the key to that."


In October, during the Packers' bye week, Levens flew to Chicago and appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The topic was "NFL Stars Looking for True Love," but the 27-year-old Levens had other motives. "True love is cool," he says, "but I mostly wanted to meet Oprah."

After the show aired, Levens received hundreds of letters and personalized videotapes, not to mention healthy doses of candy and flowers, from eligible women across the U.S. "But no underwear," Levens says regretfully. "I came off as the nice, sweet guy, so I didn't get any of the good stuff."

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