Battling to regain his game

Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich , above, was finally able to resume limited football practice in January after leaving the team one year earlier to undergo cancer treatment. The Conestoga graduate was the ACC defensive player of the year in 2008. The following spring, he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that is often fatal. Herzlich and his mother, left, share a moment at their home in Wayne.
Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich , above, was finally able to resume limited football practice in January after leaving the team one year earlier to undergo cancer treatment. The Conestoga graduate was the ACC defensive player of the year in 2008. The following spring, he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that is often fatal. Herzlich and his mother, left, share a moment at their home in Wayne.

Ex-Conestoga football star Mark Herzlich tested by cancer.

Posted: August 15, 2010

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. - The summer's coolest temperatures and a sky as crystalline as Boston's John Hancock Tower, which glimmered on the near horizon, infused Boston College's stony, tony campus with a hint of autumn and football on this August Friday.

As if they felt it, too, a family of visitors posed at the Doug Flutie statue outside Alumni Stadium, parents and children wrapped around the sculpted depiction of the Eagles quarterback as he wound up, Juan Marichal-like, to unleash his legendary Hail Mary pass.

As they did, Eagles linebacker Mark Herzlich hurried by, en route to the school's football media day. Had the visitors been aware of who was passing, known what he'd endured these last 15 months, they might have asked to pose with him as well. Because, like Flutie on that memorable day 26 years ago, Herzlich has created his own Boston College football miracle.

Fifteen months after being diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that threatened not only his career but his life, nine months after a 12-inch titanium-steel rod was implanted into his left leg, Herzlich is ready to play football again.

"It's just miraculous," Eagles coach Frank Spaziani said of the former Conestoga High School star.

Herzlich is ready even if the team physicians disagree. Thankfully, the reason for this medical dispute apparently has nothing to do with the deadly disease he seems to have conquered.

Instead, routine X-rays revealed a tiny stress fracture in his right foot. So when the 2010 Eagles began fall practice last week, Herzlich, 22, the 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year, wasn't cleared to join them.

That explained why on Friday, with the weather teasing so tangibly and the first in-pads practice set to take place later that afternoon, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound senior's face, surrounded by cherubic blond curls, wore a grimace. "It's frustrating," said Herzlich, who said he'd been told he'll be ready for the opener against Weber State on Sept. 4. "Obviously, I've dealt with a lot worse than a foot fracture in the last year. But whatever it is, I've got to rehab and get back. It's just one more hurdle."

And he knows that even more hurdles await.

There are the periodic tests to ensure that the cancer has not resurfaced. The most recent showed him to be cancer-free.

There are the psychological questions that the football senior's lengthy absence from the game created. Can he play at the same level? Will his goal of making it in the NFL have to be shelved?

"I definitely still have dreams of playing in the NFL," he said. "But first things first, I have to get on the field and prove I can play."

And there's a more basic fear, that his affected left leg might not meet the physical demands of the game.

"If my leg did break," he said, "I'd have a tough time healing because of all the damage the chemo and radiation did to the spot [where the tumor was]."

But all that is secondary now. For Herzlich, who already has earned his undergraduate marketing degree and will take graduate business courses this fall, what's important is that he's back after sitting out the 2009 season, back doing what some said he'd never do again, back doing what he said he loves more than anything.

"What [the absence] really did was solidify how much I love the game," he said. "I always loved football and thought it was fun. But once it comes down to all these things that can be taken away from you, football stood out the most in my life. That's when I knew this was something I really wanted to do. It's a huge part of my life."

It seemed like all that was going to be taken away from him in May of 2009. Back home in Wayne after his spectacular junior season, he complained to his parents about a persistent and deep pain in his left leg. An MRI revealed a tumor and soon doctors at Pennsylvania Hospital had diagnosed Ewing's sarcoma. The forecast wasn't rosy.

"They said that only 10 percent survive if it gets into their bloodstream, 70 percent if it didn't," he said. "So before you get all the tests you don't know if you're going to beat it or if you only have a month left."

Displaying the same kind of determination that led him to make 110 tackles and six interceptions (two returned for TDs) in 2008, Herzlich decided to tackle the disease as if were an opposing ballcarrier. Within days of the diagnosis, Herzlich had begun a grueling regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, occasionally commuting from Boston to Philadelphia for the treatments.

"I never had a doubt that he would do absolutely whatever he needed to do to beat this illness," Conestoga football coach John Vogan said. "That's the kind of kid he is.

"When he got the news, he probably reflected on it for one second and then determined that he'd do whatever it takes. He'd do everything he could to prepare for practice or a game or a test. You combine that with a tremendously supportive family, and you can see why it wasn't a surprise at all that he beat this thing."

Wanting to maintain his weight and strength, Herzlich identified the few foods that didn't make him vomit and ate them regularly, topped with considerable doses of hot sauce. "It was the only way I could eat hamburgers," he said.

While the doctors cautioned him against strenuous physical activity, he worked out on an elliptical machine and even played golf with his brother Brad, a standout linebacker at Conestoga last year and the winner of the Maxwell Club award for high school players in this region. He is now a freshman at Brown.

In November, the therapies ceased. But then, in order to strengthen the leg further, surgeons inserted the 12-inch rod that runs from above his knee to his hip, secured by a pair of bolts.

Finally, a series of screening tests found that the tumor had vanished and there were no new cancer cells. Herzlich knew what was next.

"At that point, I sort of stopped the cancer-battling and started battling to get back on the field," he said.

In the process, he helped raise $200,000 for Uplifting Athletes, an organization dedicated to raising the awareness of rare diseases that have afflicted sports stars. He also spent considerable time watching film with head coach Frank Spaziani and linebackers coach Bill McGovern. During the Eagles' 8-5 2009 season, he was usually on the sideline, acting as a combination coach/cheerleader.

At spring practice, he participated in non-contact drills. And he never stopped exercising the leg.

"Flexibility was my biggest issue," he said. "When I went back to running and training, the muscles started to stick to my bone, using it as a crutch. So, over the past month or two, I've been taking this treatment where I would get my muscles ripped off my bone. It's kind of an unlocking technique to get the muscles firing again. Now, my muscles are strong enough that I can start doing heavy squats and lunges and I've been running a lot."

The result of all those off-field activities is that, while questions might remain about his physical ability, he has no doubts that he's stronger mentally.

"I've gotten a lot of time to watch tape of myself and analyze what I was not doing well," he said. Sometimes when you're playing, you get caught up in all the good plays, the positives. When you take a step back . . . you can see what you need to do better. But it's tough to look at that and then not be able to practice."

Now it's up to Spaziani to determine when to set Herzlich loose and whether he'll be an asset on the field early in the season. But that process has been delayed by the foot injury.

"I'm frustrated for Mark because I know what this means to him and what he's trying to accomplish," Spaziani said. "When you cannot assist like you think you want to assist, there's a little bit of that frustration. I understand his frustration and we have to just take it as it comes, but I think we'll be fine and it will be that much sweeter when he gets to the goals."

Whenever he starts to practice, Herzlich already has made an astonishing comeback - astonishing to everyone but himself.

"It might look surreal from the outside," he said. "You might be thinking, 'Oh, Mark Herzlich, he battled cancer and now he came back and is playing again.' But to me that was the plan the whole time. I'm just on course with what I want."

To continue on course, he'll have to convince Spaziani that he's the player he was in 2008. In his absence the Eagles developed a solid linebacking corps, led by Luke Kuechly. As a freshman, Kuechly averaged 12.2 tackles per game, the highest for any first-year player since the NCAA began recording tackles.

But given his size, experience and speed, there will be a spot for Herzlich if he's up to the task.

"I don't have to prove myself as such," he said. "I pretty much just have to give them the confidence that I can play. There's no reason to expect I'm going to be terrible.

"I think everyone's going to compare what I do this year to 2008, which is exactly what I'm going to do. We'll look back at the end of the season and see how it went. It will either be great or it will be OK. But it can't be bad, because coming back is going to be great in itself.''


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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