SAN FRANCISCO - Bonded by scars and a determination to not only survive, but excel following career-threatening injuries, Jamal Anderson and Garrison Hearst will play on the same football field this afternoon for the first time in more than two years.
Together they are medical miracles - Anderson recovering from a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament and Hearst returning from a horrific ankle injury. The mere fact that both will play - make that start - in today's game (4:15 p.m., FOX 54) between Atlanta and San Francisco is a testament of modern science and old-fashioned determination.
Hearst, a product of Lincoln County and the University of Georgia, was running back with the San Francisco 49ers when his ankle crumbled into pieces in the first round of the NFC playoffs in 1998 in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Anderson then ripped his left knee ligament in the second regular season game in 1999.
Anderson's recovery took two years. He spent the last 14 games of the 1999 season on the injured list and he worked through pain during his return a year ago. Although he rushed for 1,000 yards, he now admits his knee wasn't ready for the rigors of 16 games.
Hearst's recovery also took two years. He's been through four surgeries and will be playing his first game in more than two years this afternoon at 3Com Park.
How much both have returned to their former level of successes will have a lot to do with how much Atlanta and San Francisco are ready to bounce back from a season of 10 combined victories.
"The last time I played, Jerry Rice was on the field," Hearst said. "Two years ago, we were in the playoffs. It's a different mentality when I came here: You expect to go to the Super Bowl. That's the first thing I heard when I came here. A lot of the guys here haven't heard that, because they weren't here (two years ago)."
When Hearst last played, Steve Young was the quarterback and Jerry Rice was the team's to-go wide receiver. Young retired a year ago and Rice has since been released, only to wind up across the bay at Oakland.
"I want to be better than I was before," Hearst said. "You come back and see a whole different group. I hope that I can bring that playoff mentality back with me. Maybe that'll help."
Two weeks ago, Hearst was in danger of being cut because the team didn't want to absorb his $1.2 million contract against the salary cap. He re-structured his deal to include a base salary of only $477,000 with a chance to make up the rest of the money in incentives.
San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci said he plans to start Hearst today, but rookie Kevan Barlow also will get playing time.
"We are committed to developing him (Barlow) as a tailback," Mariucci said of the team's third-round draft pick. "They'll share that duty. We're going to see a little running back by committee and we'll find out if it's worth a darn."
There is no indecision on the Atlanta sidelines. Anderson will play unless the team gets too far behind or too far ahead.
Anderson got most of the work last year, but rookie Maurice Smith was worked into several games when it was apparent Anderson was struggling to get back on track. This year, Anderson insists he's fully recovered - physically and mentally.
"Last year, I wasn't as strong," he said. "I couldn't finish the plays the way I normally finish plays. If you look at the (preseason) film, I'm definitely back to being the player I was before, in terms of explosiveness and my power and the things I'm able to do on the football field. I'm prepared for the season."
The Falcons, who were 4-12 in 2000, have plans to work Michael Vick into the quarterback rotation in the same manner the 49ers want to acclimate Barlow to their offense.
"Chris Chandler is our starter," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said. "But Michael will play. He has the skill and ability to create problems for a defense. How much we will use him, and in what situations, I won't say."
The first game is critical for both teams. Atlanta plays at San Francisco and at St. Louis in its first two games, while San Francisco plays Atlanta, at New Orleans, St. Louis and at the New York Jets in its first four games.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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