Monday, August 22, 2011

Running to Daylight

By Neil Bright

Mark Herzlich did not belong. Of the nation's top 25 football prospects attending the 2011 NFL draft, he no longer deserved that status. Not always so, three years earlier as a Boston College junior he was a first team All-American, ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and a Butkus Award finalist as the nation's best collegiate linebacker. A star in the making after leading his team with 110 tackles, 6 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles, he projected as a first round draft pick. Then, on May 14th 2009, things changed.

Complaining of pain and swelling in his left leg, doctors discovered a large tumor resulting from Ewing's sarcoma a rare and highly malignant form of bone cancer. Afflicting just two out of every million people younger than 30, Herzlich was given a 70-percent chance of survival and a zero percent chance of ever playing football again.

While the first prediction was based on a coldly accurate medical diagnosis, the second decided by the will of an indomitable athlete was unknowable by even the most advanced of tests. But proving doctors wrong in returning to the game he loved, Herzlich would need to first defeat the opponent threatening his life. And in vowing to leave the darkness of his disease behind, the linebacker whose name means "from the heart" has been running to daylight ever since.

In the summer of 2009, Mark Herzlich was no longer a stud linebacker on the eve of an NFL career. In the hospital five days a week undergoing six months of chemotherapy, four weeks of radiation, and a hip-to-knee bone-strengthening titanium rod implant, he was not fighting for athletic glory. The once invincible warrior in shoulder pads was now fighting for his life.

And fight he did. After the cancer diagnosis, "Why me?" was quickly replaced with the same never give up, never quit determination that had served him well on the gridiron. Throughout the struggle after losing his hair, his energy, his strength, and his sense of invulnerability, he never lost his dream of resuming his football career. And he never lost his sense of humor either in describing the lump in his leg as "a pain in the ass."

Such a positive and relentless attitude was not lost on his college coach who said that his "will to fight exactly mirrors what you see on the football field." Patriot linebacker Tedy Bruschi offered that Herzlich was more interested in the next challenge than in talking about what happened to him. And that next challenge of returning to the field gave him the strength to endure the fears, the doubts, and the chemical and radiological poisons leading to a cancer-free pronouncement four months after all seemed hopeless.

Sitting out the 2009 season, Herzlich was finally cleared to return to action as a senior. Perhaps doing too much too quickly, he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot which slowed his progress. Making only three preseason practices, he played his way into shape only to break his hand in the fourth game. Yet despite missing an entire year, despite the physical toll of his bout with cancer, and despite injuries, Herzlich started all 13 games, was third on the team in tackles, and won the Brian Piccolo and Rudy awards for exemplary courage and character.

As the NFL draft approached, Mark Herzlich had done all he could to realize his dream of playing professional football. Yet still it was not enough. Projected in mock drafts to be selected anywhere from the third to the seventh rounds, his name was never called.

No longer viewed as an elite athlete, in the dollars and cents world of the National Football League, an elite heart in and of itself meant little. And though not being drafted was "a disappointing and tiring day," the snub only fueled his competitive fires. Said Herzlich, "I have been told that I can't play football before [and] we all know what happened with that." Confidently speaking to general managers after the draft he added, "If you want a player who plays hard for you and never complains, and does everything the right way for 10 years, then I'm your guy."

Even seen as damaged goods, on history alone Herzlich would have been selected from the pool of free agents shortly after the draft. Yet because of the NFL labor lockout, he was forced to wait three months and wonder which team would take a chance on him. And when that chance came on July 26th, it was from the New York Giants.

Nobody can predict the ending of what until now has been a feel good story. Football is a brutal sport and a no less brutal business. It's one thing to be invited to training camp as an undrafted free agent and another to make the team. It may have helped Herzlich get his foot in the door that both the Giants head coach and owner have ties to Boston College. But in the end, all that matters is the bottom line of performance.

Still, it would be foolish to bet against someone who fought and won against a much tougher foe than ever faced on Sunday. Equally so, it would be foolish to believe that if Herzlich continues running to daylight through the practices of August that another such run won't occur shortly thereafter. And that would be jogging through a tunnel and onto a professional football field come September.

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