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49ers offensive lineman Herrion dies at 23

DENVER -- The cause of offensive lineman Thomas Herrion's
death cannot be determined until toxicology tests are performed, a
process that usually takes three to six weeks, a coroner said
Sunday.


Herrion had never tested positive for any banned substance since he entered the NFL two years ago, sources familiar with his league drug profile have told ESPN's Chris Mortensen.

Herrion had tested negative on three occasions in the past 12 months for steroids and performance enhancement drugs, including ephedra products. He also was clean in other league-administered tests for street drugs, the sources told Mortensen.

The 23-year-old offensive guard for the San Francisco 49ers
collapsed in the locker room Saturday night, minutes after the
team's preseason game against the Broncos on a 65-degree evening
in mile-high Denver. He was taken to the hospital and pronounced
dead shortly after.

"It's a time that we have to be reflective, and try to sort out
what happened and try to carry on in a way that is sensible," NFL
commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in Foxborough, Mass. "[We are]
working closely with the medical authorities and team physicians
and others to see if the cause of this player's death can be
ascertained. At this point we don't have any answers."

Herrion played only in the final minutes of the game, getting
about 20 plays of action. He was whistled for a penalty during the
49ers' 14-play, 91-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes.

He spoke with Guy McIntyre, the 49ers' director of player
development, about how he had played. Later, he shook hands with
Denver players, interacted with fans and even joked with the 49ers'
nutritionist, according to Nolan.

"It's a day of mourning for the 49er family," coach Mike Nolan
said Sunday. "We lost a teammate and a very good friend as well."

At the airport, the 49ers gathered in a hangar where they were
informed of his death shortly before the team plane left for home.
The player had the day off Sunday, but practice is expected to
resume Monday. A team memorial service will be held Tuesday.

"I do think that being on the field is therapeutic to coaches
and players alike, but not right now," said Nolan, who hasn't
decided how to alter the 49ers' preparations for Friday's home
preseason game against Tennessee.

"We didn't see anything happen," 49ers defensive lineman
Marques Douglas said. "I sat by my locker and prayed for him."


Niners linebacker Julian Peterson told the San Jose Mercury News that players were holding hands in postgame prayer when Herrion "just toppled over."

Nolan told the newspaper the team's medical staff "immediately went to him" when Herrion collapsed.

"We were all told to stay back so the medical staff could do their work," he said.

Howard Daniel, an investigator with the Denver coroner's office
that performed an autopsy on Herrion, said nothing was readily
apparent about why he died.

"There's no conclusion, pending further studies," Daniel said.

The death once again spotlights how dehydration and obesity
affect athletes, especially the huge linemen who play in the NFL.

Herrion was 6-foot-3, 310 pounds -- fairly average for an NFL
lineman, but considered obese within standards routinely accepted
by the medical community.

"Our thoughts are with the Herrion family and the 49ers," NFL
spokesman Greg Aiello said Sunday. "We have been in contact with
the 49ers throughout the day to offer our assistance and to learn
the details of what happened."

After the game, Herrion was noticeably
winded as he walked off the field, but didn't look much different
than teammates who played beside him at game's end.


The San Francisco Chronicle reported that television footage showed Herrion walking off the field after the 49ers' touchdown drive, with nothing apparently wrong. According to the paper, Herrion's face gave no sign of distress in the footage.

"Last night before we boarded the plane, the coaches grabbed our team together and gave us the news," Douglas told ESPN Radio on Sunday morning. "At that time, we just kneeled and prayed. We had a moment of silence for him. We knew that, the team knew that it was in God's hands."

The death comes a little more than four years after offensive
lineman Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings died of heatstroke
during a training camp practice when the heat index soared to 110.

NFL teams since have increased efforts to teach players about
how to manage the heat. On Saturday night, temperatures in Denver's
thin air were in the mid-60s with 50 percent humidity, although
experts say heatstroke can happen even in cool weather.

It is not known whether Denver's mile-high altitude could have
contributed to the death. As a college player at Utah, Herrion
played games at high elevation and would have been more used to
those conditions than many.

Jim Rieves, Herrion's coach at Kilgore Junior College in Texas, told The New York Times that he couldn't imagine Herrion being bothered by the altitude. Herrion played at altitude in Utah, Rieves told the newspaper, and he spent part of this year in Texas, working out in temperatures around 100 degrees.

"That's what blows my mind," Rieves told the Times. "He's here in East Texas, working out in the mid 90's. The temperature is well over 100. He didn't have any problems. No heat-related problems or dehydration.

"He was not a drinker or a drug user. I just don't know what could have happened."

Ron McBride, the current coach at Weber State, who was one of Herrion's coaches at Utah, told the Times that Herrion's mother, Janice, suffered from a heart problem.

"The biggest thing about pro football with him is that he wanted to earn a living so he could help his mom," McBride told the Times. "She worked two jobs and had a heart problem. His junior year, she'd been in and out of the hospital with high blood pressure and hypertension. I don't know all the details, but we had a lot of communication with her to check on her."

In 1979, St. Louis Cardinals tight end J.V. Cain died of a heart
attack during training camp. Chuck Hughes, a Detroit Lions wide
receiver, died of a heart attack during a 1971 game in Detroit
against the Chicago Bears. In April, Arena Football League player
Al Lucas of the Los Angeles Avengers died of a spinal-cord injury
after making a tackle.

"We have done everything medically we could do," NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw said
Sunday. "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 said, referring to Lucas' death in the Arena Football League.

Herrion, a first-year player with the 49ers, spent part of last
season on the San Francisco and Dallas practice squads. He also
played this season with the Hamburg Sea Devils of NFL Europe.

Though Herrion probably was a long shot to make the 53-man
roster, the Fort Worth, Texas, native was enjoying the chase. Known
as "Big Tex" or "Train," Herrion -- listed at 310 pounds, but
looking larger still -- wore his hair in long braids and cut a
distinct figure in the locker room.

Herrion frequently chatted with Alex Smith, the No. 1 draft pick
who also attended Utah. They told stories of their adventures in
Salt Lake City, with Herrion shaking his head in amazement at the
school's undefeated season under coach Urban Meyer after Herrion
left.

When Smith was asked to sing Utah's fight song in a meeting last
week, Herrion eagerly jumped up and joined the rookie quarterback
in a rousing rendition of "I Am a Utah Man, Sir."

The University of Utah plans to remember Herrion with a moment of silence before the season-opening game against Arizona on Sept. 2 in Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Utes will also add a small black No. 76, Herron's number at Utah, to their helmets.

"It's still totally shocking to me," said agent Frederick
Lyles, who spoke with his client a few hours before his last game.
"He was upbeat, happy, ready to get it on. It just hurts you. You
don't see a lot of people like that. He was willing to put in the
hard work to achieve his goals."

Travis Fox, the offensive coordinator at Kilgore, said
Sunday he shared an apartment with Herrion for two weeks this
summer. Herrion had returned to the school to get in shape before
reporting to the 49ers.

Fox said Herrion never struggled during intense drills in
97-degree heat. He added that the lineman had no injuries or health
problems while playing at Kilgore.

"The young man was in shape," he said.

Herrion's nicknames at Kilgore were "Train" and "Big T." Fox
said he was called "Thunder" in Germany because his head was too
big for a regular helmet.

Fox said Herrion always talked about his niece, and family was a
big motivation for playing.

"When he got here," Fox recalled, "the first thing he told me
was, 'I'm going to make this team and buy my mom a nice house.' "


Herrion, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, also started every game at left guard in the 2003 season for Utah and was a team captain, when current 49ers quarterback Alex Smith played his sophomore season at quarterback.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the tragic passing of Thomas Herrion," Former Utah head coach Urban Meyer, now the head coach at Florida said. "He was an outstanding, quality young man that helped lead the 2003 University of Utah football team to its first outright Mountain West Conference Championship and to victory in the Liberty Bowl.

"Elected as a captain by his teammates, he was loved, respected and admired by all of us. We pray that God's blessing be with Thomas'
family, friends and current and former teammates during this sad and difficult time."

Herrion had four siblings -- two brothers and two sisters.

Herrion's mother spent Sunday looking at pictures of
her son and remembering how much he accomplished.

"Twenty-three years was all he was allowed," Janice Herrion
told Dallas television station WFAA. "And in those 23 years he
left his mark, you know? He left his mark."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.