SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) _ Through two difficult years of surgery and rehabilitation, Garrison Hearst never doubted his resiliency _ even though not many people shared that faith.
``I could probably count them on one hand, but it didn't matter what anybody believed,'' Hearst said. ``It was what I believed that mattered.''
Hearst, the San Francisco 49ers' running back who keeps coming back, was a runaway winner of The Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year award Thursday in balloting by writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL.
The sight of Hearst ducking tacklers and dodging linebackers this fall was improbably thrilling to those who followed the two-year odyssey of Hearst's return to football after he broke his left leg on his first carry of a playoff game at Atlanta in 1999.
Hearst, who received a similar award in 1995 after recovering from a serious knee injury, received 47 of the 50 votes.
His second return has been the NFL's feel-good story of the year. Even the 49ers' opponents love the ebullient running back who simply wouldn't quit.
``During the game, they really don't say much _ not positive, anyway,'' Hearst said with a grin. ``But after the games, I've had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'It's good to see you back.' ''
Hearst went down in the prime of his career _ fresh off a 1,570-yard season and his first Pro Bowl selection _ in front of family and friends in his hometown. After an operation to help the injury heal, Hearst developed a circulatory problem that threatened his ability to walk.
Avascular necrosis prevented proper blood flow from reaching Hearst's ankle, and it killed part of the bones in his foot. That led to risky bone-plug surgery in July 1999 and again in March 2000 to stimulate circulation.
He had arthroscopic surgery early in 2001, then continued the thousands of hours of rehabilitation _ many while holding a football as a reminder of the game he loved.
Physical rehab was nothing new for Hearst, who won the Victor Award _ the predecessor to the Comeback Player of the Year award _ with Arizona six years ago.
Hearst returned to full practices last summer at training camp. When he looked good in workouts, the 49ers cautiously eased him back into preseason games, where he showed almost all of the magic he had before the injury.
Coach Steve Mariucci admitted he was shocked.
``It's the best story of the year, and the best story around here for a while,'' he said.
The 49ers desperately needed a running back this season after Charlie Garner left as a free agent, but Hearst's comeback even caught them by surprise.
Near the start of the regular season, San Francisco asked Hearst to restructure his contract to fit it under the salary cap. The Niners even considered cutting him before Mariucci affirmed his commitment to Hearst.
``I don't need to tell you how important he is to this football team, and not just because he rushes for a lot of yards and scores a lot of touchdowns,'' Mariucci said.
Hearst rushed for 1,206 yards this season, 10th in the NFL, with four 100-yard games and four touchdowns as part of a formidable rushing tandem with rookie Kevan Barlow. Hearst also caught 41 passes, filling the multiple roles demanded of a running back in the West Coast offense.
With his strength and confidence seemingly growing as the season progressed, Hearst capped the season with a Pro Bowl berth and a return to the playoffs. San Francisco will face Green Bay on Sunday.
``When I got hurt in the playoffs, my goal was always to come back and play again in the postseason,'' Hearst said. ``Now that I've reached it, I just want to help this team get as far as it can go.
``The last time I played for this team, it was a playoff team. Now, we're a playoff team still. I came back because I wanted to be a part of the success of the San Francisco 49ers. This season, I've been able to do it again.
``There was never a doubt in my mind that I'd come back.''
Hearst was the second 49ers player to win in the four-year history of the award. Bryant Young took the honors in 1999.
Three other players received one vote each: Jacksonville wide receiver Jimmy Smith, Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart and Tennessee wide receiver Kevin Dyson.