Posted: Monday August 29, 2005 12:36AM; Updated: Monday August 29, 2005 4:20PM
Mike Nolan knew he had a tough task taking over a 2-14 team, but he never expected anything like this.
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So much to get to this morning. Maurice Clarett will be cut by Denver today. (Does someone have the movie rights to this kid's train wreck of a career?) ... The Saints had to fly out of New Orleans yesterday because of Hurricane Katrina. I just heard the governor of Louisiana on CNN, asking the people of America to pray for the state. ... Cedric Benson, the last remaining unsigned first-round pick, is unsigned no more, having agreed to terms last night. ... Kyle Orton, the seventh quarterback picked in the draft last April, is the new starter for the Bears.
And then there's the Corey Simon story. What a doozy. Simon's a franchise defensive tackle for Philadelphia who was almost traded to Baltimore on draft day and who is due to make $5.18 million this year for the Eagles. Boom! Because of Philadelphia's embarrassment of defensive-tackle riches (Hollis Thomas, Darwin Walker, Sam Rayburn, rookie first-rounder Mike Patterson), because its first-team defense has allowed three points in 13 preseason possessions and because now it can use that $5 million to wrap up other players (not Terrell Owens, so don't get excited) to long-term deals, Simon's a former Eagle this morning.
We're 10 days from Randy Moss at Tom Brady to open the season, but I have to write a few paragraphs this morning about the uncertainty surrounding the 49ers. As in, how are they going to deal with the harrowing experience of seeing a teammate die before their very eyes?
"There are some things ahead of me, ahead of this team, that we just cannot predict,'' Mike Nolan, the 49ers coach, told me the other day. "They don't write about this in any coaching manual. ... How this is going to affect all of us as players, coaches and people? I just don't know if any of us can answer until maybe a year from now."
Fallen 49ers offensive lineman Thomas Herrion was buried by his family on Saturday in Texas. A large delegation from the team was there, including all Herrion's offensive line-mates, Nolan and owners John York and Denise DeBartolo York. The organization has received praise from the Herrion family, players and employees for handling the death with the dignity and respect as befits such a horrible event as a promising player and man dying in the locker room after a game. When I talked with Nolan, he did not want to relive the moments after the collapse in the locker room, because he didn't think it was respectful to Herrion's memory. But he did agree to talk about how the team was coping and how he'd handle things moving forward.
In the days since Herrion's Aug. 20 death, Nolan has been touched by the outpouring of support from other coaches and people from his past. The advice of two men who've experienced this in recent years -- Arizona coach Dennis Green, whose Vikings lost Korey Stringer, and St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, whose team lost Darryl Kile -- has particularly helped Nolan. He appreciates it all. But there is one thing no one can assist him with.
"The difference in this situation is our players witnessed this," Nolan said softly. "This was not the case of a man dying apart from his teammates. They were right there, cheering him on, trying to help bring him around. And when that happens, how do you know how the impact is going to be over time?"
You don't. That's why Nolan has done things like make counselors available for teammate's loved ones as well as payers themselves, so wives, girlfriends and moms will know how to deal with the days ahead as well. And of course players will be allowed to get help when they need it. "Only God knows if what we're doing is the right thing, but we're doing the best we can,'' he said. "Who prepares for something like this happening? But the one thing I know is we can't ignore it, now and in the future. If you ignore it, that doesn't mean the wound has healed."
Nolan has few specifics to discuss, because he's not sure exactly what he'll do if a teammate runs into trouble at some point this year. Not that he thinks that'll happen, but he can't be sure. He did know he had to get this team back to normal, as normal as possible, as soon as he could. Which is why the 49ers practiced, made decisions (naming Tim Rattay over Alex Smith as the No. 1 quarterback, because Smith just wasn't ready) and played a game (a win over Tennessee). Life moves on, though it may stop and start a few times this year in Herrion's memory.