SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The last minutes of Thomas Herrion's life gave no indication of the tragedy to come.
The 23-year-old guard for the San Francisco 49ers looked fine coming off the field after an exhibition game Saturday against the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field. He knelt alongside his teammates to pray in the locker room. Suddenly, he collapsed.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Pro football -- An article in the Sports section Monday about the death of NFL player Thomas Herrion said that Chuck Hughes of the Detroit Lions died of a heart attack during a game on Oct. 24, 1972. Hughes died on Oct. 24, 1971.
"We began to say the Lord's Prayer," 49er Coach Mike Nolan recalled Sunday in a news conference at team headquarters. "Right about the time of completion, someone in the back had said that Thomas was down. At that time, everyone kind of stood up and cleared out. ... And the medical staff was quickly at work on Thomas."
Herrion was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:18 p.m. Mountain time, about one hour after the game ended.
The death came about four years after Minnesota Viking lineman Korey Stringer died of heat-related illness at training camp in Mankato, Minn., on a day when heat and humidity created a heat index of 109. Temperatures in Denver on Saturday were in the mid-60s with 50% humidity, although experts say heat illness can still occur in relatively cool conditions.
An autopsy on Herrion was performed Sunday in Denver, but the coroner said the cause of death cannot be determined until toxicology tests are completed, a process that takes three to six weeks.
It was a relatively low-key scene Sunday at 49er headquarters, with a dozen or so reporters milling about and four local television vans parked in front. Someone had left a small, potted bouquet of white flowers on the doorstep with a card reading "In memory of Thomas Herrion," and the team dispatched a security guard to patrol the parking lot and make sure the few players who trickled out of the building didn't stop to speak with the media. In the afternoon, the flag outside was lowered to half-staff.
Before the guard arrived, at least one player did talk. Safety Dwaine Carpenter spoke in a trembling voice about kneeling near Herrion during the postgame prayer.
"It looked like a seizure," Carpenter said. "But he didn't move at all anymore. He was just laying there."
Carpenter said there didn't appear to be anything wrong with Herrion when he left the field after the game, and that the man was "laughing and smiling" as he walked to the locker room. Herrion was low on the depth chart and was among the last players inserted in the game.
But Herrion was on the field for every play of a 14-play, 91-yard drive that ended with a touchdown with two seconds to play. When he came off the field, he went to the bench and caught his breath with the help of an oxygen tank -- not unusual for a lineman, particularly one playing in mile-high Denver -- then checked with former 49er lineman Guy McIntyre, now the club's director of player development, for an informal assessment of his play.
"He just asked me, 'How was that, Coach?' and I said, 'It was good,' " McIntyre said. "I just saw him get some oxygen, because it was a 14-play drive and he was very winded. I'm sure I would be winded after that. And that was pretty much the gist of the conversation. From that point on, he was fine."
It is extremely rare for an NFL player to die during or immediately after a game. Chuck Hughes, a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, died of a heart attack Oct. 24, 1972, during a game in Detroit against the Chicago Bears. In 1979, St. Louis Cardinal tight end J.V. Cain died of a heart attack during training camp.
In April, Arena Football League player Al Lucas of the Avengers died of a spinal-cord injury he suffered when making a tackle.
"Right now it's a day of mourning for the 49ers family," Nolan said. "We lost a teammate and a very good friend as well."
Herrion, who earned $775 a week in training camp, had previously failed to make the 53-man roster of the 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. Signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Cowboys in May 2004, he spent last summer at training camp in Oxnard but was released before the opener. Dallas re-signed him to the practice squad and kept him on it for two weeks.
After practice Sunday, the Cowboys gathered to collectively pray for their fallen former teammate. Coach Bill Parcells told reporters he always liked Herrion.
"He just kind of came in as one of those underdog kind of kids," Parcells said. "He just hung in there."
Last December, the 49ers signed Herrion to their practice squad, where he remained for the final three weeks of the season. This spring, San Francisco allocated him to NFL Europe's Hamburg Sea Devils, where he started in 10 games and played well enough to earn an invitation to 49er training camp.
His older brother, Love Savior, said Herrion returned from Europe looking in better shape than he had in years, so much so that he took a ribbing from his family in Fort Worth.
"He had trimmed up, got more solid," said Savior, 32, reached Sunday at home. "He didn't have a gut no more. Real good shape."