The untold recruiting story of how UGA held on to legendary RB Garrison Hearst

Garrison Hearst is one of the greatest running backs to play for Georgia. He still ranks No. 4 all-time in career rushing yards.

Want a daily lap through Georgia football recruiting? That’s what the Intel will bring at least five days a week. We’ve got a special throwback edition in this edition that covers the ins-and-outs of the recruitment of legendary Georgia tailback Garrison Hearst. 


AUGUSTA, Ga. — Garrison Hearst looks as if he could still play today.

The legendary tailback from Lincolnton was the guest of honor Tuesday night at the Augusta Bulldog Club’s season kickoff event. Hearst was presented with the 11th annual Loran Smith Award for his contributions to Georgia, both during and after his career.

In 1992, Hearst finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting. That year, he won the Doak Walker Award, given to the best back in college football.

Garrison Hearst gets loose for one of the 35 touchdowns he scored in his three-year career with the Georgia Bulldogs from 1990-92. AJC/file photo

Hearst — and we won’t say this lightly — was a bad man on the football field.

There’s a story from his high school days when a teammate made a bad decision. His fullback took a biscuit from a convenience store without paying for it.

This took place the day before Hearst and his Lincoln County team played in the state championship game.

It cost the Red Devils their starting fullback and a starting cornerback. Hearst, who only played offense at the time, stepped into both roles.

The initial replacement at fullback wasn’t anywhere near as physical or as prepared, so Hearst took over and did what was required. The Parade All-American tailback stood out in his first game at fullback, and he also was pressed into service at cornerback. He hadn’t played that position all season.

The Georgia high school legend went on to intercept a pass at corner. He turned that play into a touchdown, which decided the Georgia High School Association Class A state championship game.

The great ones just seem to do things like that on the football field.

“Back then recruiting was so different,” Hearst said. “They come to see you. They all come to your games. I don’t see them doing that now. Coach [Ray] Goff brought the whole staff to my games. Every coach at UGA came to my games.”

Garrison Hearst was hidden away before his decision

Hearst played at a time when recruits were squirreled away before their college decisions. That was to avoid last-minute pitches from coaches in their living rooms, front yards and their high schools.

“Back when I was being recruited, they would hide you,” said Hearst, now 46. “You’ve heard about that before? I went to a golf course with my high school coach and watched him play golf. Just to make sure that nobody would slide in that back door. Just so nobody would try to say some last-minute words to you to make you change your mind.”

Garrison Hearst was a first-round draft pick by the then-Phoenix Cardinals in 1993 and later played for the San Francisco 49ers. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

There are many stories over the years of players being taken to cabins or to hunting lodges to stay hidden.

Hearst was parked at a local golf course back then. Howard Ellis, the defensive coordinator at Lincoln County at the time, provided that escape.

The recruiters were looking for Hearst, but he had been sequestered away behind a couple of Par 5s. Hidden in plain sight.

“They were not going to find out where I was,” Hearst, now 46, said. “They would’ve had to come find me. I went down there and was ready to hang out.”

Was he already pledged to UGA? Was he a silent commitment before anyone knew what that was?

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to hear anything anymore,” Hearst said. “It was just that Georgia said, ‘Let’s just get you down there and let you hang out with coach Ellis for awhile.’ Just so (South) Carolina couldn’t get any closer. Because Carolina was in there real deep.”

It should also be stated for the record that there were several Georgia fans on that coaching staff at Lincoln County at that time.

“At one time you could say that [South] Carolina was out there in front for me,” Hearst said. “But Georgia came out on top for me in the end. Like they should.”

What college recruiting was like in 1990

Hearst went on to be an All-American and a first-round pick in the 1993 NFL Draft. He rushed for 1,000 yards four times in the NFL. A broken ankle sustained in the playoffs after the 1998 season, and the complications that followed, cost him the 1999 and 2000 seasons. He bounced back in 2001 to rush for 1,206 yards and win the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award.

At Georgia, he scored 21 touchdowns during a brilliant junior season and then bolted to the NFL. He told DawgNation that he wished he would’ve stayed for his senior season.

Garrison Hearst moved his son, Gerard, from Johns Creek High in Metro Atlanta to Lincoln County High School for his senior season this fall. He will line up for his father’s alma mater wearing the No. 5 that Hearst wore at Georgia. (Jeff Sentell/ DawgNation)

That’s his advice to college stars today. So he said he was happy to see both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel return for their senior seasons.

“If I had to do it over, I would stay for my senior year,” Hearst said. “That’s knowing what I know now. I tell kids today that if you are going to make it in the pros, then you are going to make it. There’s no better time in your life than in college.”

Hearst was the Zamir White or Justin Fields of his day back then. That was basically the Mesozoic era of college recruiting.

It was fascinating to learn just a smattering of the following about Hearst’s recruiting:

  • Georgia started recruiting him during his freshman year of high school.
  • When he finally chose UGA, the entire coaching staff was in the lunchroom at Lincoln County to celebrate that day. Ray Goff took his staff out to lunch afterward..
  • South Carolina finished second in his recruitment. It actually was pretty close.
  • Auburn was his dream school, but the Tigers overslept in the major phase of his recruiting.
  • Tennessee and coach Johnny Majors were another major player for his services. Majors left Tennessee after the 1992 season.

South Carolina had a chance to steal Hearst away.

“Now most folks don’t know that Carolina was in there real strong,” Hearst said. “I was an Auburn fan. Bo Jackson was the baddest man I have ever seen. I was an Auburn fan. But Auburn didn’t recruit me until the day before the state championship game my senior year.”

That’s a far cry from today. The truly elite players land their offers in the summer prior to their freshman year in high school.

“I was mad when they finally called me by then,” Hearst said of Auburn. “I was like, ‘Don’t call me now,’ but that’s when they finally started to recruit me.”

What has never changed in the minds of big-time recruits

What was the single biggest factor why Hearst chose Georgia? That hasn’t changed much over the years.

“I wanted to play my freshman year,” Hearst said. “So whatever school I was talking to, my biggest thing was I didn’t want to redshirt. I wanted to play. Florida State was a school that I visited, but I knew that I wasn’t going to play right away there.”

Both Georgia and South Carolina offered that.

“Georgia recruited me harder because they recruited me longer,” Hearst said. “They started recruiting me as a freshman.”

Hearst said he didn’t make his mind up until after his senior season.

“It was different back then,” Hearst said. “You didn’t start your recruiting visits until after the high school football season. Some guys started during the season, but my visits came after my season. Back then, you didn’t go on visits. You went to the games, but that wasn’t a full-blown visit. You just went to the game.”

When Hearst made his decision in 1990, Rodney Hampton, another all-time great, had just left Georgia and was headed to the NFL. Hearst said that left him an opportunity to challenge for a job without an established starter.

“I felt like I could come in and have a shot with everybody that was at running back at Georgia then,” Hearst said. “I’m not saying that anybody was bad. I just felt that I could come in and play. I believed in me.”

How Garrison Hearst adjusted to playing at UGA

It didn’t take long for Hearst to buy into the fact he could play right away.

Garrison Hearst finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1992.(Joey Ivansco/AJC)

“I knew after a couple of scrimmages,” he said. “Probably after the second scrimmage we had that summer. I was getting just as many yards as the other guys who were ahead of me and was able to pick up the offense. … Nobody was standing out. Nobody was faster than me, and I was just as big as the guy who was going to be the starter going in.”

He does remember his “Welcome to the SEC” moment. That was provided by all-time UGA great linebacker Mo Lewis, who went on to play 13 years in the NFL.

“My wake-up call came from Mo Lewis,” Hearst said. “He ran through me like a laxative. I went up to block him. I remember reaching out to block him.”

The next thing Hearst saw was the blue sky above the practice field. Lewis parked him on his backside.

“I saw him going back that way to the defensive huddle and was like, ‘Man, what just hit me,’ on that play.”


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