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Death recalls memories of NFL fallen

Their names appear in the newspaper when tragedy strikes, but their stories live only in the fading memories of those they left behind.

They are two of the men who died while playing professional football. And the death of San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Thomas Herrion last week opened old wounds for those who knew them.

"They have gotten lost and that's part of the pain their families and those of us that were their friends and who played with them carry with us," former Kansas City Chiefs running back Abner Haynes said. "We still live with that. The public doesn't understand. We're still going through that."

Haynes was on the field in 1963 when his friend and teammate Stone Johnson suffered a spinal cord injury that resulted in his death 10 days later at age 23. He remembers the play so vividly that for years he had trouble sleeping. Forty-two years later he still can't tell the story in its entirety. It's too painful.

Jeanie Cain dated her future husband James Victor "J.V." Cain for five years. She had been married to the St. Louis Cardinals tight end for 6 { months before he died of a heart attack in training camp on his 28th birthday in 1979. She never remarried.

"It's something that's with you every year when the football season starts," she said.

News of Herrion's death after the 49ers exhibition game against the Denver Broncos a week ago has brought the memories flooding back. Sad as they may be, Haynes and Cain relish the chance to tell the story of two of the men who gave their life to the game.

"That's what it brings up every time I see it happen," Haynes said of Herrion's death. "It reminds me of Stone and what we all went through."

Haynes and Johnson were not only teammates with the Kansas City Chiefs, they were high school teammates at one of two all-black high schools in Dallas. Theirs is a story of elite athletes rising above segregation during the racially volatile 1950s and '60s.

J.V. had finished running a simple pass pattern, a pattern he had run a hundred times before, when he took two steps back toward the huddle and collapsed during practice. Medical personnel briefly revived him but he died later that same day, his birthday, at the hospital from what doctors later discovered was a congenital heart defect.

They always talked about starting a business when his NFL career ended. Sometimes Jeanie wonders what type of business it would've been.

"If I've never, ever been happy in my life, I had 6 months of good, honest happiness," she said.

Neil Hayes is a sports columnist for the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif.