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San Francisco 49er Dies in Locker Room after Game

Filed under: News/Events - Posted on Monday, August 22nd, 2005 @ 6:20 pm

A sombre Mike Nolan pieced together the last moments of Thomas Herrion’s life and recounted the aftermath of his death at a news conference in front of the 49ers’ Santa Clara facility Sunday.
Herrion, a first-year player from Utah, collapsed in the locker room Saturday night following the 49ers’ 26-21 exhibition loss to the Broncos in Denver. He was pronounced dead at a Denver hospital at 11:18 p.m. MDT, approximately one hour after the end of the game.
The cause of death is unknown; the Denver medical examiner said the results of an autopsy were inconclusive. A toxicology report won’t be available for a few weeks.
Herrion stayed mostly on the sidelines throughout Saturday night’s game. He was on the field, playing left guard, for the final drive that began with 2: 28 remaining. The drive was a 14-play, 91-yard touchdown march without the use of a huddle, meaning there was little time for players to catch their breath. The drive was actually 16 plays because two plays were nullified by penalties.
One of the penalties was on the 6-foot-3 Herrion, who weighed upwards of 330 pounds, according to Nolan. To halt blitzing cornerback Jeremy LeSueur, Herrion reached out with his arm and struck LeSueur in the facemask.
During the long drive, Herrion didn’t appear to be labouring. In fact, he stood his ground well against four-year veteran Dorsett Davis. He raced upfield a few times, once on a run block and another on a screen pass.
The drive, which consumed 2:26 of the game clock, ended when fourth- string quarterback Cody Pickett sprinted 23 yards for a touchdown. After the drive, Herrion received oxygen, according to player development director Guy McIntyre.
McIntyre, a onetime Pro Bowl guard for the 49ers, said using oxygen after a prolonged drive is not unusual.
“Fourteen plays, that’s a long time,” McIntyre said. “I don’t think that was the problem.”
Herrion asked McIntyre, who was a mentor, how he did during the drive.
“He was working hard and doing all the right things and I think he just wanted to get a little, I guess, reassurance that he was doing all right,” McIntyre said.
Once Herrion and his teammates entered the locker room, Nolan gave his usual briefing and then called the team together for a prayer. Players and coaches knelt, and at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, players began yelling for trainers.
According to eyewitnesses, Herrion slumped from his position on one knee and was attended to immediately.
“The medical staff was right there,” defensive end Marques Douglas said after the game, before Herrion’s fate was announced. “They were very attentive to what was going on. We did the best thing we could and that was get out of the way.”
Defibrillators were used in an effort to resuscitate Herrion before he was loaded onto a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance.
Shortly afterward, Nolan was told Herrion had died.
Nolan made arrangements for a space to be reserved at a small hangar at Denver International Airport. It was there that Nolan told the team of Herrion’s death.
Nolan said he also called Herrion’s family after the lineman’s collapse and spoke with the family again Sunday.
Herrion’s is the NFL’s first football-related death since Vikings tackle Korey Stringer died of heatstroke in 2001. There have been two other deaths: St. Louis Cardinals tight end J.V. Cain had a fatal heart attack during training camp in 1979, and Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died of a heart attack in a 1971 game against Chicago.
Speaking to the Associated Press, NFL players association leader Gene Upshaw said of the league’s medical oversight: “We have done everything medically we could do. We have doctors trained in emergency medicine, in heart problems and other specialties standing by at every game. It’s not just internists. It’s people who know what to do in every emergency. It just wasn’t enough.
“This is the second time this year we’ve lost a player, and that’s two too many.”
Upshaw was referring to the death of Arena Football League player Al Lucas, who died of a spinal-cord injury sustained as he made a tackle.
In noting the difficulty of foreseeing medical problems, Upshaw noted the case of New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who had a stroke 10 days after the Patriots won the Super Bowl this year.
“He had a hole in his heart and might have played with it for years. No one ever noticed it,” Upshaw said.
Bruschi is not playing this season and is contemplating retirement.
Raiders coach Norv Turner said he heard the news about Herrion on the radio while driving home after his team’s flight from Houston.
“It’s just unbelievable when something like that happens,” Turner said. “Our thoughts and our prayers go out to his family and everyone in the 49ers’ organization.”
The 49ers’ players had the day off Sunday, but some came by the team’s Santa Clara headquarters, walking in stone-faced.
Late in the afternoon, Nolan, with team owner John York at his side, read from a short statement and then fielded questions.
He related an anecdote in which the gregarious Herrion came to the aide of his former Utah teammate, Alex Smith. While the team waited Tuesday for Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young to make an appearance and address the players, Smith was told to sing his college fight song for the assembled.
As Smith started to sing, Herrion stood up and joined him.
“Everybody began to hoot and holler,” Nolan recounted. “At that time, he came out of his shell. It was warming to see him like that.”
— THE PLAYER: Herrion was a 23-year-old offensive lineman, standing 6-foot- 3 and weighing 320 pounds. He played college ball at Utah and spent part of last season on the practice squads for the Cowboys and 49ers. played in NFL Europe earlier this year.
— FINAL DRIVE: Herrion was in the game for the 49ers’ final drive against the Broncos, which covered 91 yards in 14 plays and took 2:26 on the game clock. Two other plays were erased by penalties, including a penalty for illegal use of hands on Herrion with 47 seconds remaining.
— OMINOUS WORDS: After the game Herrion spoke with former Hamburg Sea Devils teammate Aaron Hunt, now with the Broncos. “He said, ‘I don’t see how you can play in this altitude,’ ” Hunt said. “He said he had played at Utah, but in that last drive, the altitude was killing him.”
— TEAM STATEMENT: “Thomas Herrion …collapsed in the locker room … and was immediately treated by team physicians, the medical staff and paramedics. …We received word a short time later that he passed away. This is a colossal tragedy for the 49ers and the entire NFL community.”

By Kevin Lynch
(San Francisco Chronicle, 22 August 2005)

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