DENVER 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 played alongside him during the fast-moving final seconds.
A few minutes later, the San Francisco offensive lineman collapsed near his locker.
He was rushed to the hospital and 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 long shot 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.
Chargers top Rams
SAN DIEGO The San Diego Chargers proved they can thrive without All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates at least for one exhibition game.
LaDainian Tomlinson scored on a 55-yard run his only carry of the game and his backup, Michael Turner, also had a 55-yard run, plus a 2-yard TD scamper, as the Chargers beat the St. Louis Rams 36-21 on Sunday.
Gates signs, Chargers confused on suspension
SAN DIEGO (AP) Antonio Gates signed a $380,000, one-year contract Sunday night to end his holdout with the San Diego Chargers.
The record-setting tight end still appears headed for a three-game suspension, including the season-opener against Dallas, for missing a team-imposed deadline to report to camp.
In a new twist to the Chargers’ most-pressing saga, general manager A.J. Smith seemed bewildered by reports quoting Gates’ agent, Andre Colona, as saying that commissioner Paul Tagliabue can shorten the suspension if requested by the Chargers.
‘‘If there’s some development here that you all are reporting, and there is a hearing and the commissioner says he can come back to the San Diego Chargers for Dallas, I think that would be unbelievable,’’ Smith said during a news conference at halftime of an exhibition game against St. Louis.
‘‘That’s exciting. But you guys are way ahead of me on that. But we’ll explore, weigh the options, and go from there.’’
An NFL spokesman, though, said there doesn’t appear to be any way to reverse the process set in motion by the Chargers in an attempt to break an impasse in negotiations for a multiyear deal for Gates, who was named All-Pro in just his second season.
The team sent Colona a letter more than a week ago ordering Gates to be in camp and sign a contract by Saturday, or be put on the Roster Exempt List once he does sign, triggering a three-game suspension.
‘‘Once the letter is sent, the player is out,’’ spokesman Steve Alic said Sunday.
If Gates had met the deadline, he’d be OK, Alic said.
Now, ‘‘he’ll be able to suit up for week two of the regular season,’’ Alic said.
Smith said the Chargers checked with the NFL management council before sending the letter and were told ‘‘100 percent that you can’t get your player back. That’s pretty strong. It affects us, too, now. Not only is Antonio out of the game, but the Chargers are out of the tight end in the game. But we understood that when the letter was delivered.’’
Said Alic: ‘‘I’ve spoken to the management council today just to double-check what I know, and that is the case, 100 percent. I’m not aware of any type of appeal process.’’
Chargers receiver Keenan McCardell, a member of the NFL Players Association Executive Committee, also said he was unaware of any appeals process.
Asked if he regretted sending the letter, Smith said: ‘‘Oh no. Absolutely not. Oh, no, no, no, no. We knew if sent the letter, 100 percent we’re out the player. We need to get this going. We’re not getting anywhere.’’
Gates had a breakout year in 2004, helping the Chargers go 12-4 and reach the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons. Gates caught 13 touchdown passes a league record for tight ends and led the Chargers with 81 catches for 964 yards.
As an exclusive-rights free agent, Gates was tendered a one-year contract for $380,000, the minimum for a third-year player. That Chargers say Gates deserves to be paid more, but can’t agree with Colona on the number of years or dollar amount of a long-term deal.
Smith said he concurred with Colona that ‘‘negotiations are dead in the water. We just can’t seem to get it going. We’ve been at this thing for 10 months. We’ll just hopefully keep banging away at it. Andre said Antonio will sign the tender and play for $380,000, then go into the restricted free agent market. So we pretty much have established that.’’
Next offseason, Gates can receive offers from other clubs. The Chargers would have the right to match any offer.
Colona reportedly said he won’t negotiate after the Dallas game.
‘‘It looks like we’ve got a window now, from when the tender is signed, until Dallas,’’ Smith said.
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