DENVER (AP) – As he walked off the field on a relatively cool Colorado evening, Thomas Herrion was huffing and puffing. Still, he didn’t look much different from his 49ers teammates who had been playing alongside him during the game’s fast-moving final seconds.

A few minutes later, the San Francisco offensive lineman collapsed near his locker. He was rushed to the hospital, pronounced dead at age 23.

The coroner’s office in Denver performed an autopsy Sunday, but said no cause of death could be determined until toxicology tests were performed. The tests usually take about three to six weeks.

“Our thoughts are with the Herrion family and the 49ers,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. “We will be in contact with the 49ers to learn the details of what happened.”

The 49ers returned to San Francisco on Sunday still in shock, and coach Mike Nolan was deciding what to do next, with the start of the regular season three weeks away.

“We lost a teammate and a very good friend as well,” Nolan said.

The death came a little more than four years after offensive lineman Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings died of heatstroke following a practice in steamy 90-degree weather.

It was in the mid-60s with 50 percent humidity in Denver on Saturday night, and while heatstroke is still possible under such mild conditions, the notion that Herrion, or any football player, is in good enough shape to handle game conditions simply because he’s a professional athlete is being questioned all over again.

The first-year guard, a longshot to make the final roster, was listed at 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, about average for an NFL lineman. But when measured on the body-mass index scale, which is a commonly accepted standard of fitness in the medical community, Herrion would be considered “severely obese.”

And though obesity can’t necessarily be blamed for the death – at least not at this point – one expert says it surely could have been a contributor.

“Obesity is associated with sudden death,” said Dr. Joyce Harp, a University of North Carolina endocrinologist who recently did a study calculating the BMIs of all NFL players and found that almost all players qualified as overweight or obese.

“Yes, it could be totally unrelated to his weight, but the fact remains that he was 6-3 and he weighed 310 pounds and probably should have been 210 pounds,” Harp said.

Harp’s study has its critics, including those in the NFL who say it doesn’t take into account the fact that BMI doesn’t consider the ratio of muscle to fat. Indeed, many musclebound football players who aren’t fat would be deemed in the obese range on the BMI scale.

Before starting training camp last month, Herrion passed the broad range of physicals the NFL demands from all its players.

One of his former coaches at Kilgore College in Texas, Travis Fox, said he roomed with Herrion this summer after Herrion moved back to get in shape for 49ers training camp.

Fox said Herrion never struggled during intense drills in 97-degree heat and also said the lineman had no injuries or health problems while playing at Kilgore.

“The young man was in shape,” Fox said.

Herrion played his college ball at Utah, and so was as accustomed to playing in high altitude such as Denver’s, which can intensify dehydration.

He was running down the field with the third- and fourth-team players during a frantic, 14-play, 91-yard drive that ended with 2 seconds left in San Francisco’s 26-21 loss. While taxing, it certainly wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for a professional football player.

“We didn’t see anything happen,” 49ers defensive lineman Marques Douglas said after the game. “I sat by my locker and prayed for him.”

Stringer’s death prompted the NFL to increase efforts to teach players about managing the heat and dehydration. Many teams moved practices out of the hottest hours of the day and began better monitoring of how much liquid players were drinking.

Others have started using devices to measure players’ core body temperatures – a good preventive measure, but almost certainly not something that could have saved Herrion on Saturday.

As always, medical staffers were on hand. Paramedics were performing CPR on Herrion within moments of his collapse.

Herrion adds to a very short list of NFL deaths that also includes St. Louis Cardinals tight end J.V. Cain, who died of a heart attack during training camp in 1979, and Detroit Lions receiver Chuck Hughes, who died of a heart attack during a game in 1971.

Herrion was a first-year player with the 49ers, and spent part of last season on the San Francisco and Dallas practice squads. He also played this season with the Hamburg Sea Devils of NFL Europe.

Fox said Herrion always talked about his niece, and family was a big motivation for playing.

“When he got here,” Fox recalled, “the first thing he told me was, I’m going to make this team and buy my mom a nice house.”‘

A former Cowboys teammate, lineman Stephen Peterman, remembered Herrion as “a really fun, nice guy.”

“It’s sad to see that happen,” Peterman said. “All you can do is pray for his family and for his soul.”


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