Neither Rhyme Nor Reason To A Death At 23

By David Steele
Updated: August 22, 2005

BALTIMORE — It’s hard to believe the football world could wake up to worse news than what it woke up to Sunday morning: A young player trying to make an NFL roster had collapsed in the locker room and died after a game.

The news it woke up to Sunday morning, however, might be worse: There still is no apparent reason why it happened. A reason wouldn’t make the sudden loss of San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Thomas Herrion hurt any less, but it might – might – make it easier to accept, or at least wrap your brain around.

But, as of Sunday night, nobody appeared to have any insight into why a 23-year-old, first-year player, who by all accounts came out of Saturday night’s preseason game in Denver showing no symptoms that anything was wrong, was dead a few short hours later.

Why a mother had lost a son who seemed perfectly healthy, why a group of players had lost a teammate with whom they had just competed – with whom some had just held hands during a post-game prayer – or why coaches and executives and players were walking around yesterday fighting back tears and asking questions for which nobody had answers.

That was what much of yesterday must have been like around the 49ers, and for everybody who arose in either a cheery or foul mood about how his team had played the night before, only to see and hear the shocking news from the West that likely missed every Sunday morning paper in the East.

The knee-jerk reaction at times like this is to say the reports of Herrion’s death put everything into perspective, but such a cliched response trivializes what happened. A 23-year- old professional athlete dropping dead with no warning and no explanation, even after an autopsy the next afternoon – honestly, where does that fit into anybody’s perspective?

It would be pretty superficial to compare this to, say, a bad preseason outing or a contract dispute after seeing Herrion’s mother, Janice, on television Sunday night trying to describe the essence of a son she surely thought would be with her for many years to come.

Most of the familiar names and situations were mentioned as yesterday wore on: Korey Stringer, who died four years ago in the Vikings’ training camp from heat-related illness; Chuck Hughes, who died of a heart attack during an NFL game in 1971; J.V. Cain, who suffered a fatal heart attack in training camp in 1979; Arena football player Al Lucas, who died of a spinal-cord injury after a tackle during a game last April; and even Steve Bechler, the Orioles pitcher whose heatstroke death in spring training 2003 was tied to his use of an ephedra-based weight-loss supplement.

Yet preliminary autopsy reports from the Denver coroner’s office found no conclusive cause of death – not a heat-related problem, no immediate evidence of any foreign substances. Toxicology tests are pending and, the coroner said, will take three to six weeks.

Mike Nolan, the 49ers’ head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator, said at a news conference at team headquarters Sunday night that Herrion never showed the common warning signs of any of the aforementioned ailments.

His workload in Saturday’s game hadn’t been particularly high, about 20 plays. The timeline starting from his last snap raised no red flags, Nolan recounted. Herrion left the field, chatted with coaches, shook hands with Broncos players afterward, walked to the locker room, bantered with fans, listened to Nolan’s post-game talk and knelt for a prayer.

And, suddenly, 49ers players were yelling for help.

Though Herrion was listed as between 310 and 320 pounds from his college days at Utah until this camp, he probably weighed a few pounds more than that. But early research, reaction and reports – particularly from his former junior college coach, who told the Associated Press he helped Herrion get into shape for this training camp with no problems – gave no indication he was a major health risk.

With the inconclusive autopsy results and evidence of a normal game experience, turning Herrion into a cautionary tale now would be wildly and unfairly premature.

So the NFL and its fans were left at a loss for something to grasp in what a 49ers spokesman called “a colossal tragedy.” Sunday night, the more Nolan detailed the scene in the locker room and at the Denver airport early yesterday morning, where he handled the painful task of telling the players, the more heart-wrenching the story became.

“Right now,” Nolan said Sunday night, “we’re looking for ways to help our players and coaches cope with this tragedy.”

It might take awhile, especially because there still is no answer to a very basic question: Why?