Two days after the death of Thomas Herrion, the 49ers returned to practice at their Santa Clara facility on Monday a shaken team. Afterward, a number of 49ers spoke about Herrion, an offensive lineman who'd been hoping to make the roster. Safety Arnold Parker, a former teammate of Herrion's at Utah, unintentionally used the present tense, talking of "Big T's" personality and how he "brings everybody together." A few feet away, tackle Kwame Harris spoke of the toll Herrion's death took. "It does rock you to your core," he said. "Being able to process it together, this is a major thing for us."
In the locker room after the 49ers' 26-21 loss to the Broncos in Denver last Saturday night, Herrion collapsed as the team recited the Lord's Prayer. Trainers worked on him as he was transported to the hospital, but an hour later, as the team gathered in a hangar to board its charter home, coach Mike Nolan informed the players that Herrion had died. Herrion had been on the field for the final 14-play scoring drive and seemed fine to his coaches. The only omen was a postgame conversation with Broncos lineman Aaron Hunt, who had played with the 6'3", 330-pound Herrion for Hamburg in NFL Europe. As Hunt told The Denver Post, "[Herrion] said he had played at Utah, but in this last drive, the altitude was killing him." As of Monday the cause of death was unknown.
Herrion took a circuitous route to the Niners. He graduated from Polytechnic High in Fort Worth, Texas, but he neither met NCAA academic requirements nor interested any coaches. After two years at Kilgore (Texas) Junior College he transferred to Utah. Herrion played drums at a Baptist church, and he often belted out Marvin Gaye tunes, which led his Utah teammates to call him Ruben Studdard. After going undrafted, Herrion spent two weeks on the Cowboys' practice squad, then last December signed with San Francisco, which sent him to NFL Europe. His voice also made an impression on his teammates in his short time with the Niners. On Aug. 14 the veterans forced rookie quarterback Alex Smith to sing the fight song of his alma mater, Utah. Herrion hopped up and joined him. "Everybody began to hoot and holler," says Nolan. "At that time he came out of his shell. It was warming to see him like that." --Chris Ballard
JOHN MEDINA/WIREIMAGE.COM (HERRION)
MICHAEL ZAGARIS/GETTY IMAGES (HERRION PLAYING)
College coaches at first overlooked Herrion, who never gave up on himself.