Herrion will live on prominently in 49ers' future

Fame comes to some in haunting ways. Such is the case of Thomas Herrion, a young, unheralded lineman who was anonymous to most NFL observers outside of San Francisco. But everyone in the football world knows Herrion today. And in death, he'll live on and grow with the budding young team that is the 49ers. "In a philosophical sense, Thomas has kind of planted a seed under this team in his own way," coach Mike Nolan said Monday. "I mean, he has come to life more than any other way he could have."

And that irony, Nolan said, will have a lot to do with the direction the embattled franchise takes after the sudden and shocking death of the 23-year-old offensive guard, who collapsed after Saturday night's 26-21 preseason loss to Denver and died of unknown causes about an hour later at a Denver hospital.

Nolan and the 49ers began taking their first steps forward from the devastating loss of a popular teammate with a 53-minute practice in shorts and helmets Monday afternoon. Afterward, Nolan talked of how Herrion will impact the team posthumously perhaps even more than if he'd lived.

"And how we take that," Nolan said, "is going to have a lot to do with were we go. I mean, are we sprouting a weed, or are we sprouting a vibrant tree? And that's what he's done."

Herrion, who spent the final 12 weeks of the 2004 season on the 49ers' practice squad, was a long shot to make the team this year. He was running as a third-team guard and, if he did make the team entering the regular season, it would have been in a reserve role that would have become more prominent only if players in front of him were injured.

But now Herrion, in spirit, could have a larger, more encompassing purpose with this team than he ever could have had on the field.

"I don't know that Thomas would have made the team or not prior," Nolan said. "But with what (has transpired), he's got probably as strong an impact on our football team right now as anyone on this team. And I'm looking for it to be a very positive one. And I think our players will see that, too."

In their own various ways, some of those players already were seeing it that way.

While some players weren't quite ready yet Monday to speak about the tragedy – most notably, rookie quarterback Alex Smith, who played with Herrion during Smith's sophomore season at the University of Utah in 2003 – others already were finding inspiration to push forward in their memories of Herrion.

Left guard Justin Smiley, in fact, specifically asked the 49ers' media personnel if he could come out of a locker room that was closed to the media Monday to talk about Herrion.

"I can't just say enough about that guy," said Smiley, who held the starting position ahead of Herrion on San Francisco's depth chart. "He's an amazing person, man, and he'll be sorely missed. I asked if I could come out here to talk to you (media) because it's my worst fear that I would die in vain, that somebody wouldn't remember me for what I've done, what I've accomplished, and I don't want that to happen to Thomas.

"Thomas is an unbelievable person. You'd expect me to say that, but I'm just not saying it. I've never seen a bad look on the guy's face. He would hold bags when he was giving me a look (during lineman drills), and he'd have a smile on his face. Man, I mean, that's the thing that kills me. We lost a great person."

And, Smiley said, a player that would have made a name for himself had he lived, something several other teammates reiterated.

"I think Thomas, if he wouldn't have passed on, he would have gotten the recognition that he deserved in a different way," Smiley said. "I think Thomas was born to play the sport. He was a strong, powerful guy. He was way stronger and way more powerful than anybody we've got on our offensive line. You just don't find that. I mean, he was almost like kind of superhuman when it comes to that."

Left tackle Jonas Jennings and two-time Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry – the veteran leaders of San Francisco's rebuilt line – also talked of Herrion and the promise he displayed for a young team that similarly is full of promise.

"He reminds me of myself in college – just raw talent," Jennings said. "Very eager to learn, and a very strong guy that could go out and maul guys. We were just trying to teach him the perks of having technique and stuff along with the gift that he had. He was really coming into it. He had one of the best drives of his life in action before his life was taken."

Said a teary-eyed Newberry: "He was so hard-working. It was kind of dear to me. He sought me out and I used to come out before practice and work with him. He wanted to take coaching from anybody that would help him. I never heard him complain about anything. He always wanted to get better. Great person. Great personality. Great guy. We lost a special person."

Herrion didn't bring inspiration to the 49ers just in death. He also did it the moment he arrived in San Francisco last October after he was released by the Dallas Cowboys. He had spent two weeks on Dallas' practice squad in September.

Smiley recalled the first time he saw his new teammate last year. It was in team chapel before a 49ers game in October.

"Nobody really knew who he was," Smiley said. "He came in, sat down, and the first thing he did, he told the team, ‘You know, I'm very blessed to be here.' He said, ‘I almost feel like it's a relief, like I didn't fit in at Dallas. I think God sent me here for a reason, to be with you guys.' That was the first thing that I ever heard Thomas say, and that's the thing that keeps flashing in my mind."

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