'A special person watching over us'

The last time the 49ers were on the field in the preseason, they lost a game to the Denver Broncos, and then they lost a teammate. But life goes on in the NFL and, six days after the death of Thomas Herrion, the Niners must return to high-stakes action with the first league-mandated roster cutdowns looming early next week.

This game is filled with complex issues for the 49ers, the first of which is getting back into the flow of playing football after the sudden and shocking death of the beloved Herrion, who collapsed in the locker room after last Saturday's 26-21 loss to the Broncos and then was pronounced dead shortly thereafter at a Denver hospital.

This is not a situation most NFL players – or any athletes, professional or otherwise, for that matter – ever have to deal with, and the 49ers are preparing for their first game after the tragedy in their own different ways.

"It's going to be somber, but at the same time energetic because we're going to want to do our jobs and represent the 49ers and Thomas Herrion the best we can," Niners offensive lineman Tony Wragge said of today's 7 p.m. exhibition clash against the Tennessee Titans at Monster Park in San Francisco.

"The man was like a brother to me, and these guys and I would never want to let my brother down," Wragge continued. "Everybody's going to show heart and character and play hard and play smart. I believe this game … there's going to be a special person watching over us. And he's got the best seat in the house. We're going to want to represent him very, very well."

And then there's the matter of getting down to basic football business.

"We're going to think about him before the game, but you can't be thinking about anything else once the game starts, because that's how you get hurt," left tackle Jonas Jennings said.

The 49ers will honor Herrion by wearing a black, football-shaped decal with Herrion's uniform number, 72, on the back of their helmets, something they will do for the entire 2005 season. Coaches also will wear a similar memorial patch on their shirtsleeves. Herrion will be honored with words and pictures during a pre-game tribute.

But then the 49ers must turn their focus to the game. They were able to put precious little time into that pursuit during this tumultuous week.

"We certainly had to shorten our preparation, but it's a preseason game, and both teams are trying to find out about a lot of people," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "How much it affects the game is hard to say, even after the game. It's an important one for us, because the starters will play a lot. I am very hopeful, and we're planning that our guys prepare in a way that they understand the importance also."

The 49ers will get their first look at quarterback Tim Rattay working with the first-team offense in live competition this year. Rattay, who excelled in the first two preseason games after entering with second-teamers, was named by Nolan earlier this week as San Francisco's starting quarterback for the regular season.

Nolan plans to play his starters on both sides of the ball into the third quarter to give both units a chance to develop some continuity. But he also must find time to get reserves into the game, because the Niners must make their first difficult roster decisions after this game to reach the NFL-mandated limit of 65 players by next Tuesday.

The 49ers have multiple questions to answer about who will fill backup roles at several positions and who will handle specific duties, such as punt returner. The Niners, who currently have 84 players on their roster, plan to announce their cuts as early as Sunday.

In addition to finding some of those answers, Nolan feels getting back into action also is the best way for his team to move on from the troubling events of the past week.

"I always look forward to the game," he said. "Practice is alright, but it's the game that I live for. I'm always looking forward to that. Does it have something to do with the other night (last Saturday)? Maybe a little bit. I'd like for our guys to get back out there and do it, but it's not only what happened the other night after the game but during the game. Our players are anxious to go out and play well. The other night, it wasn't as good as they'd like, so there are a lot of reasons. Everyone is anxious to get on the field and play."

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