49ers vs. Falcons: Do It For Garrison Hearst
Most of us remember the last time the 49ers played a playoff game in Atlanta.
Garrison Hearst and San Francisco made some fond memories together.
It was the game after "The Catch II," when Terrell Owens -- after dropping several passes all game -- held on to a Steve Young laser that vaulted the Niners over the hated Green Bay Packers in January 1999.
But that's not why it's remembered. It's remembered for its infamy. It was the game that Garrison Hearst broke his ankle.
He'd been having his best year as a pro. He began the 1998 season with one of the greatest runs in NFL history: a 96-yard overtime touchdown against the Jets on a sunny Candlestick afternoon. He finished up with a franchise record 1,570 rushing yards to go with seven touchdowns and more than 500 receiving yards. That year he also set 49ers franchise records for total yards and single-game yards, a 198-outing against the Detroit Lions.
In the Wild Card round win over the Packers, Hearst rushed for 128 yards, helping send the Niners to a Divisional Round date with the NFC West rival Atlanta Falcons.
It happened on the game's first play from scrimmage, an otherwise unremarkable seven-yard run. But at the end, as Hearst attempted to spin out of a defender's grasp, his leg got caught in the AstroTurf. It was gruesome. It looked like he would never play again.
Doctors said so, too. The 49ers' orthopedist, Michael Dillingham, unforgettably described Hearst's ankle as having "the consistency of toothpaste."
Hearst, of course, would play again. After two years of rehabilitation, he returned in 2001, rushed for more than 1,200 years and won the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year Award, becoming the only player to do so twice. (Possibly useful sports bar trivia: in 1995 Hearst won Co-Comeback Player of the Year with ... Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh).
The 49ers, though, would miss their star running back that afternoon in the Georgia Dome. They fell behind 14-0 in the first half, after two Jamal Anderson touchdown runs.
The Niners made a game of it: The defense held the Falcons to just two field goals over the final 40 minutes; a Jerry Rice touchdown-catch and a Steve Young touchdown-run cut the Falcons lead to 20-18.
But their inability to establish a running attack had doomed the comeback. After Hearst left the game, San Francisco running backs combined for just 20 yards. Young, who led the team in rushing with 28 yards, threw three interceptions.
For 49ers fans, these are horrible memories that must be exorcised. So what better place to play for a chance at the Super Bowl than that damned dome?