Can football ever be the same again for 49ers?

The 49ers began the difficult process of moving on and getting back to normal Monday after the tragic death of Thomas Herrion, and that could be one of the most difficult things this adversity-stricken team will have to face in 2005. "We're doing everything to get back to a normal routine as much as we can," coach Mike Nolan said late Monday afternoon. "But we have things ahead of us." And not everybody was quite prepared to face them just yet – and perhaps won't be for a while.

Count Jonas Jennings among them.

Jennings, one of the new veteran leaders of a young rebuilding team after signing a $36 million free-agent deal in March, was one of several players that had a hard time getting back into the flow of football during the team's 53-minute afternoon practice in shorts and helmets.

"It was a waste for me," Jennings said. "Honestly, mentally I wasn't there."

And who could blame him? Mentally, a lot of 49ers still were replaying the tragic loss of Herrion, the 23-year-old offensive guard who died late Saturday night after collapsing in the San Francisco locker room following the team's 26-21 preseason loss to the Denver Broncos.

"But you've got to be professional," Jennings continued. "You got to go out and do what you've got to do. The guys are looking to you for strength. You gotta go out and be the professional that you are."

The 49ers took their first steps in returning to the process of preparing for the upcoming NFL season, but thinking about the physical aspects of football again – not to mention playing another preseason game this Friday against the Tennessee Titans – still was a little too much for some.

When asked if it was difficult to believe the 49ers had another game to play in four days – an important game, no less, for a team still attempting to determine several significant roster questions – Jennings spoke softly through a blank expression.

"Yeah, it is," he replied. "It's life now that's in perspective. It's hard to think about the job when you know there's a life missing."

Even Nolan – trying to hold his team together and get it through this tragic episode of his debut season in San Francisco – had thoughts about not playing the game Friday.

"I have to be honest and say it crossed my mind," he said. "But it just crossed my mind. I don't think that's the correct thing to do in this case, but it crossed my mind."

Monday was scheduled to be the final two-a-day practice session of training camp, but Nolan scrapped that idea Sunday. Instead, the team met early Monday morning and talked over the tragedy with team doctors, team chaplain Earl Smith, and grief counselors. The team was then recessed for lunch and returned for a 3 p.m. practice.

"There's certainly an effect still on the players in their minds," Nolan said. "Obviously it's still fresh in their mind. But the thing that was different in this situation from many others – or any other one that I know – is that they witnessed the incident. It wasn't so much just having a friend pass, that type of thing. This was much different. And I don't want to say that to prolong our return to getting back to normalcy, but that's a unique situation. It's different. It's not normal."

So, after talking it out and dealing with the feelings, questions and concerns of players and coaches alike, Nolan thought it was time to get his team back on the field for the first time since the tragedy – albeit under much-abbreviated practice circumstances. The 49ers will return to a regular practice schedule Tuesday morning, with a private team memorial service scheduled for later in the evening.

"It was good to get out here," Nolan said. "I think it's therapeutic to get back out here on the field for players and coaches alike. The other thing was, it was important for me to feel the guys out here together. And I think it was equally important for them, whether they recognized it or not."

It was easier for some to recognize it than others.

"Obviously, it's hard when you lose someone close to you," defensive end Marques Douglas said. "I think the team has taken the necessary steps to, No. 1, address the issue, as far as grieving, and also realize that we have to go on. That's what (Herrion) would have wanted.

"It was hard (to go on with practice), but I'm the kind of person that, as soon as you get back into a routine, it lessens the feelings of the grieving process. Even though some of us are still dealing with it differently, I think everybody was helped by the workout today. I noticed (Herrion wasn't on the field), but like I told my teammates, I am a Christian. I believe Thomas won Saturday night. He wasn't hurting and he wasn't in pain. Hopefully, he is looking down on us and wishing us the best."

After Monday's late practice, Nolan and his players finally watched the game film from Saturday night for the first time. Nolan declined to talk about football-specific matters regarding Friday's game and the team's preparation for it, saying that will come Tuesday when the 49ers take the next step in the regrouping process.

"It's still a numb feeling for many of them at this time," Nolan said. "I guess you could just say we'll start with that (Monday) evening as far as trying to get on normal for (Friday's) game."

That's something the rebuilding 49ers, who already are behind many of their more-established NFL peers, have to do. And it's something that Nolan believes they can and will do.

But it will take time.

The question is how much time. Can things really get back to normal any time soon for the 49ers?

"In time, certainly," Nolan said without hesitation. "It's going to happen. But we have to coach as we coach and do those types of things. It's all for the benefit of everyone. It's not like it's just my wishes for a selfish reason. It's to get them and their lives back where they want them to be. They don't want to be in this funk. No one wants to be in that. The sooner you can at least try to get back to that, the better. And it will be a different timeline for everyone on the team. So we're there to help them with it, and hopefully get it back as soon as we can."

Said Douglas: "I think we can (get back to normal). I think we have to. I think that Thomas is the kind of person who would have wanted us to go ahead and put our best foot forward. I think that whenever you have a situation like this – be it a parent, be it a close friend – those people would have wanted you to go on and be successful in whatever you were doing. I don't think Thomas would have it any other way."


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