DENVER — The first thing Jim Rieves does every morning upon arriving at work is fire up his computer to see what happened in the world of sports.
On Sunday morning, Rieves — the head football coach at Kilgore Junior College in Texas — just stared at the screen in disbelief. The headline “Herrion collapses, dies” was like a punch to the stomach.
“I was totally stunned and numb,” Rieves said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
San Francisco offensive guard Thomas Herrion died early Sunday morning after walking off the field following the 49ers’ 26-21 preseason loss to Denver on Saturday. He was 23.
“That’s one fine young man,” said Rieves, who coached Herrion at Kilgore.
A preliminary autopsy report was released Sunday afternoon.
“Pending further lab testing, there’s no definitive cause of death,” Denver coroner’s office investigator Howard Daniel said.
Daniel estimated it could be up to six weeks before a cause of death is known.
This is the first football-related death in the National Football League since Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died of heatstroke during training camp in 2001.
“Our thoughts are with the Herrion family and the 49ers,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Associated Press.
The details of what precisely happened remain sketchy, but San Francisco coach Mike Nolan tried to shed some light on the situation during a Sunday afternoon press conference.
“Right now, it’s a day of mourning for the 49er family,” an emotional Nolan said. “We lost a teammate and a very good friend.”
After Saturday’s game, Herrion appeared in good health. He was on the field for the 49ers’ final 14-play, 91-yard drive that culminated in a 23-yard touchdown with two seconds remaining. A San Francisco television station had footage of Herrion walking off the field with his helmet propped on the back of his head.
According to Nolan, Herrion also asked assistant coach Guy McIntyre about Herrion’s performance in the game, gabbed with a team nutritionist and joked with fans who wanted him to surrender his gloves.
In the locker room, Nolan called the team together for a prayer service. Niners linebacker Julian Peterson told the San Jose Mercury News that players were holding hands and Herrion “just toppled over.”
Team physicians and paramedics ushered everyone out and immediately began administering CPR on the 6-foot-3, 310-pound lineman. Herrion was transported to St. Anthony’s Central Hospital in Denver, where he was pronounced dead.
The team was informed of Herrion’s death just before the players boarded the plane for home. Nolan gathered the team in a hangar and broke the news.
“We had a moment of silence for him,” said Nolan, who said the team would hold a memorial for Herrion on Tuesday. “We knew that it was in God’s hands.”
On Sunday morning, 49ers defensive end Marquez Douglas was highly emotional during an ESPN Radio interview.
“He was extremely loved by many people in the locker room,” Douglas said. “He was a jovial guy who loved to joke around. Just a guy who loved life.”
Some have suggested that Herrion’s weight — he has fluctuated between 310 and 330 pounds — played a role in his death. Nolan discarded that idea Sunday.
“No, it was not (a factor),” he said.
Herrion had no pre-existing conditions or medical history. He took part in approximately 14 plays on a 70-degree evening.
Teammates called Herrion by various nicknames: “Big T,” “Train” and “Bebop.” Former Utah head coach Urban Meyer used to call him “The Meal Ticket” because he was such a great blocker.
“He was loved, respected and admired by all of us,” said Meyer, who’s now the head coach at Florida. “We pray that God’s blessing be with Thomas’ family, friends, and current and former teammates during this sad and difficult time.”
Herrion, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, started every game for Utah at left guard his senior season in 2003 and was a team captain. He played with current San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith.
Following college, Herrion spent time on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad. After being released, he signed with San Francisco on Jan. 3.
Herrion was allocated to the Hamburg Sea Devils this spring to play in the 2005 NFL Europe season. Denver’s Aaron Hunt and Tyson Clabo were also members of the team.
Herrion was listed as the third-string guard on the 49ers’ depth chart.
“He’s such a gentle giant off the field and an intense competitor on it,” Rieves said. “I remember we had such tough practices that games were easy. He used to go at you so doggone hard.”
That’s why Kilgore finished the 2001 season with a 12-0 record and ranked No. 2 in the nation. Herrion was named the team’s Most Outstanding Lineman.
At Utah, he was known for his fearlessness. When the Utes went up against opponents like Texas A&M, Herrion never gave an inch.
“I don’t care what team we’re playing,” Herrion said in a 2003 feature on him on Utah’s Web site. “They haven’t seen what a Utah offensive lineman can do.”
Football was only a fraction of his life. He was a good student and loved to play the drums.
“When I’m playing the drums, it’s like I’m in my own little world and no one can touch me,” Herrion said. “It’s the same feeling I get when I play football.”
Teammates enjoyed having him around. He was always playing the role of class clown.
This illustrated that point: When newly inducted Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young was late to address the team, Smith — being a rookie — was elected to entertain the players by singing Utah’s fight song. Herrion joined him onstage.
“Thomas is one of the finest people you’ll ever meet,” Rieves said. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”