Cancer survivor Herzlich overcomes odds to make New York Giants roster

Mark Herzlich, who was stricken by cancer while playing at Boston College, makes his debut with the New York Giants.
Mark Herzlich, who was stricken by cancer while playing at Boston College, makes his debut with the New York Giants. (JIM ROGASH / Getty Images)
Posted: September 10, 2011

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Earlier this week, Mark Herzlich walked off the Giants practice field drenched with sweat and fallen rain, wearing the dark blue synonymous with New York's oldest football team.

A few minutes later, the Conestoga High graduate pulled off his No. 58 jersey - he wears the number formerly worn by Giants defensive captain Antonio Pierce - and pulled on a light-colored T-shirt with a neon slogan across the chest.

Find Your Strong.

Those three words, printed in bright yellow, popped off the shirt's blue-green background; an inch above Herzlich's heart seemed like an appropriate place for an inspiring message.

Herzlich, 24, understands precisely what Saucony - the athletic company sponsoring the Giants rookie linebacker - means by Find Your Strong: Inside each of us exists a surprising strength; we need only find and harness it.

You can run that last mile. You can work that second shift. You can battle the deadly cancer attacking your dream of playing in the NFL, attacking your entire existence.

Which is exactly what Herzlich had to do.

Herzlich has been Finding His Strong for a few years now.

But this story isn't about Herzlich's fight with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Dozens of stories, both in print and on TV, have documented that rocky road: the diagnosis in his left femur, the radiation, the chemotherapy, the insertion of a 12-inch rod into his left leg to strengthen the weakened bone, and his triumphant return to Boston College's football team in 2010 after missing the entire 2009 season.

These torturous months have been covered so extensively that Herzlich's teammates - he officially made the Giants roster at 6 p.m. last Saturday - joke about the extra attention he receives, interest clearly not commensurate with a typical NFL rookie.

"When ESPN was featuring him, I was joking around with him because I've gotten to know him pretty well," said rookie defensive back Tyler Sash. "We've hung out a lot during camp. Even though it's only been six weeks, it feels like it's been a lot longer than that. I always joke with him about him being on SportsCenter every day all of the time."

And then Sash explained exactly what this story is about: "I think, honestly, I don't think he wants a feel-good story anymore. People know all about it. His goal was to make the team. He made the team, and after that, he just wants to go out and play football."

Herzlich will play his first NFL game on Sunday when the Giants play at the Washington Redskins.

He is one of four rookie linebackers kept by Giants coach Tom Coughlin, a tactical decision that will be immediately tested after Monday's season-ending injury to starting linebacker Jonathan Goff. Coughlin won't just depend upon Herzlich for a few hard-nosed plays on special teams - although all Eagles fans know Coughlin's Giants could use some help in that department - but he'll likely send No. 58 in as a linebacker, too.

"I think I'm getting close," Herzlich said of his improvement. "I think to play at the dominating level that I did in college in the NFL is going to require improvement regardless. But I think I'm close to getting back to where I was."

After the 2008 college football season, just before the pain began in his left leg, the 6-foot-4 Herzlich was a surefire, first-round draft pick. Two years later, after ridding his body of cancer and playing his senior season at Boston College, Herzlich went undrafted and become a free agent.

Herzlich looked at the Giants roster and believed that with his abilities at multiple linebacker spots and also with his potential on special teams, he could carve out a spot on the team's 53-man roster. He signed with New York at the end of July.

"When I signed I thought I was going to make it just because that kind of had to be my attitude going in," Herzlich said. "I had to believe that. Otherwise I wouldn't stand a chance."

Giants co-owner John Mara, a graduate of Boston College, told reporters that he suggested the team sign Herzlich but not as a charity case. The franchise believed in him as a prospect, thinking that if Herzlich could return himself to pre-cancer form, the Giants would have snagged a first-round pick at a bargain-basement price.

Herzlich approached training camp with a workmanlike attitude: He showed up early for treatment, watched all of the film he could, and spent his nights resting.

"Herzlich didn't bat an eye the whole camp," Coughlin told reporters. "Physically, he did everything you asked and more. I saw him improve literally week by week."

In the team's second preseason game, a win over the Chicago Bears, Herzlich intercepted a ball near the goal line. In the team's fourth preseason game, he recorded a sack. Although Herzlich said those two moments showed he can "make plays when they come to me," he believes he made the roster because the staff recognized his daily work in the film room and consistent improvement.

"It's just such an inspiring story," said rookie fullback Henry Hynoski, who roomed with Herzlich during preseason camp. "When I found out I was rooming with him, I was excited to get to know him. And I was just as happy when I found out he made the final 53 as I was when I made it."

All bubble players, Herzlich among them, knew if they didn't receive a phone call by 6 p.m. Saturday, they'd made the team. Herzlich went to breakfast with a few of his teammates at IHOP, watched from a local Chili's as Boston College lost its season-opening game, and then joined his parents, who had driven in from the family's home outside of Philly and arrived about an hour before the roster deadline.

When his cellphone showed the time - 6:03 - he knew he'd made the team.

"My mom cried a little bit, actually, because she's good at crying," Herzlich said. "I think my mom is also pretty good at looking at the big picture on things, and I live more in the moment. When she was crying, it made me think. It's been an emotional roller coaster for a long time now, and this is nearing the top of the climb."

Hynoski has seen enough of his roommate to know he'll keep making each step forward: first beating cancer, then returning to the football field, now making an NFL roster, next making plays for an NFL team.

"He's all desire and all heart," Hynoski said. "If he wants to get there, he'll get there; if he makes up his mind . . ."

Hynoski paused to correct himself, and then finished the sentence.

"His mind already is made up."

Translation?

Find Your Strong.


Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at kfagan@phillynews.com or @DeepSixer3 on Twitter. Read her blog, "Deep Sixer," at www.philly.com/deepsixer

 

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