SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) – Thomas Herrion’s locker stands next to the door leading to the San Francisco 49ers’ practice fields. Every player walked past him every day, and the beefy lineman usually had something to say – a quip, a joke or just a quick hello.

Herrion’s death Saturday night after a preseason game in Denver shocked the 49ers, even though few were close to the undrafted second-year pro. With his outgoing personality and quick wit, the 23-year-old guard made fast friends, even while in stiff competition for a job.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Herrion was optimistic about his chances of making the roster, or at least returning to the club’s practice squad for more seasoning.

“I’m just trying to do whatever I can do to make the team,” Herrion said while wiping sweat from his enormous upper torso. “After the way it went last year, everybody on this team is hoping for a fresh start. I just want to find a spot, something I can do to help out. When (starting center Jeremy) Newberry got hurt, I wanted to tell them I’d snap it.”

Herrion collapsed in the locker room shortly after the 49ers finished their postgame meeting following a 26-21 loss to the Broncos.

“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.”

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 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.

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.

An autopsy performed in Denver couldn’t immediately determine the cause of his death, which stunned players across the league.

“I think everybody that came into contact with him feels the impact of what just happened,” said Sione Pouha, Herrion’s college teammate at Utah who’s now a rookie defensive tackle with the New York Jets. “It really makes you come down to earth and realize what you really have. It was a shocker. You can’t sleep after that.

“He was a go-get-it kind of guy who was the big comedian of the team, the guy to make everybody laugh. If times got rough, he was right there with you.”

Herrion’s death is a sobering tragedy in what’s already been a miserable year for a franchise that won five Super Bowls from 1981-94.

Last season, San Francisco finished with the league’s worst record at 2-14, leading to the firings of coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue. With ticket sales and fan interest likely at their lowest points in a generation, the team was further embarrassed when an in-house training video featuring racial slurs and other offensive behavior was leaked to the media.

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.”

“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.”

Herrion attended Kilgore Junior College in East Texas before signing with Utah, where he enjoyed two strong seasons despite playing for two coaches. After Ron McBride was fired, Herrion stuck around for a senior season with Meyer, who led the Utes to the Mountain West Conference championship and the Liberty Bowl.

“I know he has his mom (Janice) and his family that are very devastated,” Pouha said. “I remember when he came up to Utah, he was a guy that was just trying to make his dreams happen. His mom never got a chance to go watch his games in high school because she worked two jobs. He was happy when she came to watch the games at Utah.”

Herrion went undrafted, but signed with the Dallas Cowboys in May 2004 and stayed with the team through training camp. He was released in the final cuts before the opener, then spent two weeks on the practice squad.

In December, Herrion signed with the 49ers, who allocated him to NFL Europe. He spent the season in Hamburg, Germany, then returned to East Texas to get in shape for the upcoming season.

“That’s a sad thing,” Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said. “He kind of came in as one of those underdog kind of kids and hung in there. He had an ankle hurt there and kind of fought through it.”

Offensive lineman Stephen Peterman, who joined the Cowboys the same time as Herrion, recalled their position coach being disappointed when Herrion was let go.

“He was a real strong player, just probably needed a little more time to develop,” Peterman said. “He definitely was going to be a good player one day.”


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