They were carved from the same chunk of football granite. One of squinted eyes, endless to-do lists and an annoying tendency to demand such perfection from practices that they run for hours. Upon accepting his father's old job, that of remaking the moribund legacy of the San Francisco 49ers, Mike Nolan even asked the NFL if he could wear a suit and tie on the sideline, just like his father once did.
By the time he went into the family business of coaching a professional football team, there wasn't much Dick Nolan's boy figured he hadn't already seen on those lost Sundays when his childhood playground was Kezar Stadium or the Louisiana Superdome. Then came the night of Aug. 20 in Denver, when the paramedics barged into the 49ers' locker room and pulled out a lineman named Thomas Herrion and the doctors said Herrion would never be coming back.
Late that night, seven months into his dream job, Mike Nolan stood in an airport hangar in Denver, his players in front of him, and delivered the news every coach dreads -- that one of their teammates had died.
"It didn't give you a whole lot of time to think about this," Nolan said just days before the 49ers played their first regular season game with him as their coach. "You just put your head down and get to work. There's certainly nothing in the manual about how you deal with it. It is a part of life."
It could have crumbled apart right there: the team, the dream job, the rebuilding of the 49ers. The players had not been with their first-year coach long. Most knew little about him other than he had this overwhelming presence despite standing less than 6 feet tall. This aura, too, he inherited from the father. And it was the thing they would be most grateful for.
It kept them together.
"Now that right there was tough on him, I know because first year as a head coach and you have a death right there and everybody witnessing it," linebacker Jamie Winborn said. "You just don't know how a team is going to react. I'm pretty sure he was wondering if he was going to lose us, you know guys heading off to a different world. But he kept us together man, he kept us on one focus and that's winning. And he didn't downgrade the fact Thomas's memory was there. He always pumped that up."
On Sunday afternoon, the 49ers ran onto the field for the first time in the regular season as a team with a wound, wearing Herrion's number on a black decal on the back of their helmets. During the game, they pulled out a handful of gimmick plays straight out of the schoolyard, like a wide receiver option pass and lining up the quarterback, Tim Rattay, as a wide receiver.
The plays worked and the 49ers beat the Rams, 28-25, a victory that was preserved when Michael Adams intercepted a pass from St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger with less than a minute to play. Afterward, they jumped and danced and celebrated the first game of the Mike Nolan era that already feels so much different than the way things were around here the last few years.
"I don't know what word describes it, but it's certainly a big win for our team," Nolan said in a news conference after the game.
And it was a huge step in getting past that night in Denver.
The worst part is that Herrion died right in front of them. They had just finished a postgame prayer when he simply fell over. And although the doctors and paramedics poured in instantly, his heart had already given out. His teammates literally watched him expire before their eyes. In a bravado world where players believe they are indestructible, this is the hardest thing. They don't handle injuries to teammates well, choosing to block the agony out of their minds lest the same thing happen to them. They never entertain the thought of death.
Then it was there, right in front of them. And the greatest challenge of Nolan's coaching career had come before the season even started.
"I know I have a lot of experience in the NFL, and it's one of those times you call on your instincts," Nolan said. "I believe that when something catastrophic happens, you've got to get the focus on yourself as in 'who do I have to take care of?' and 'how do I take care of them?'
"The biggest thing is you look at the people who need you the most. That was his family and the whole group that witnessed it. The players can see themselves in this. I wanted to handle this in a way so they would know if it was them they would know they would be taken care of. I wanted to give them the peace of mind, so to speak, that 'if it were me, what would happen? Would he take care of me? My mother?' "
In the days after the death, his players noticed, Nolan seemed to take on everything at once. They saw him managing the memorial service details, organizing team meetings, pulling aside players who seemed vulnerable, all while trying to gently pull the team from its grief and back into practice. He eventually told them "Thomas would want it," because, after all, they remembered Herrion as a player who practiced tirelessly as he pushed to make the team.
"He kept his composure, great composure," Winborn said. "He got us practicing a day or two afterwards because he knew we needed it. He wanted us to be together. We knew it would work out in the beginning because his presence was so big and good for us, so rich for winning. After the situation with Thomas happened, we knew the guy was going to be great. He's the head coach, you just know it."
No, there was nothing in 45 years of a football life that can ever really prepare a coach for something like this. This was a time where even being a coach's son couldn't help. That must have been strange because Mike Nolan sees a lot of Dick Nolan in himself. So many of his early coaching opportunities, as an assistant coach at Stanford, Rice, LSU, Denver and the New York Giants, came because of his father's old connections.
So many, in fact, that in 2000 while working for the Jets (after a stint with the Washington Redskins), New York Coach Bill Parcells pulled him aside and said: "If you don't get some younger friends, your friends are going to die. They're all dinosaurs."
This prompted Nolan to strike up a friendship with Ravens Coach Brian Billick, which ultimately led to Nolan becoming Baltimore's defensive coordinator. Which is probably the only reason he got the chance to coach a team of his own, even if it was one that went 2-14 last year. Coincidently, he was hired on the same date, Jan. 19, as his father 37 years before him. Among his first tasks last winter was the unenviable duty of telling a free agent, aging wide receiver Jerry Rice, one of the biggest of all the 49ers legends, that he could not come back for one last run in San Francisco.
It has been a strange tap dance for the son of a man who was fired three years before Bill Walsh arrived to build the 49ers dynasty. Rather than forget the past, Mike Nolan has embraced it. He had a giant banner with all five Super Bowl trophies attached to a wall just outside the locker room with the words "Faithful is Believing" printed across the top.
"The tradition means changing the names," he said. "One quarterback didn't win all five Super Bowls, two did. It's the changing of the names."
And in the worst month of all, where everything could have fallen apart and the 49ers could have checked out on their season before it began, their coach kept them together. After Sunday, when the trickery left the Rams stunned, they might have believed in him a little bit more.