Alive and Wow!

Former Conestoga High linebacker Mark Herzlich was not drafted, but still got a shot with the Giants. (David M Warren/Staff file photo)
Former Conestoga High linebacker Mark Herzlich was not drafted, but still got a shot with the Giants. (David M Warren/Staff file photo)

Mark Herzlich just wants to play football now

Posted: November 20, 2011

Mark Herzlich is sitting at Table 40 in a posh midtown Manhattan ballroom during a charity event on the final Friday in October. About half the members of the New York Giants are there - a gala for coach Tom Coughlin's Jay Fund, which raises money for children's cancer - including franchise quarterback Eli Manning. Even so, the donors in attendance continue to flock to Table 40. They want to meet Herzlich. They want to meet the man who survived cancer and who is now a rookie special-teams contributor for the Giants. They want to shake his hand. They want to share a few words.

One of those eager to meet the man is Gail Horgan. Earlier this year, Horgan lost her 33-year-daughter, Kristin, to cancer. Herzlich became Horgan's favorite player after she read about his story during training camp. A contributor to the Jay Fund, she even called Coughlin's daughter, Keli, who organizes the "Champions for Children" gala, to lobby for him to make the team. Keli couldn't make any promises when it came to a roster spot for Herzlich, but was able to help Horgan meet her favorite player.

For her 60th birthday, all she wanted from her two sons was a Herzlich jersey. It's worth noting that Herzlich is not a frontline player. He barely made the Giants. His jersey isn't available at the local Modell's; it needs to be custom-created online. Still, her children made the effort for their mother, and Horgan brought the jersey to the gala. When she approached Table 40, she showed the jersey to Herzlich, shared a few words, and asked for his autograph. "I think he was moved because of the connection, and I think he was also moved that someone recognized him as a player," Horgan says. "I know that's important to him. He doesn't want to just be recognized for his ailment."

This is the difficult balance Herzlich now encounters each day. He is both a symbol of hope - an inspiration for those inflicted by cancer - and an undrafted NFL player trying to carve out a spot on the Giants, a guy who simply wants to be part of a team. That, of course, seems nearly impossible, considering he's the only rookie free agent who has been profiled on "60 Minutes," who can claim more than 40,000 followers on Twitter and who has random 60-year-old women asking to autograph personalized jerseys.

"What he really wants, what his desire is, is to be a football player and to be treated that way," Coughlin says.

And yet the coach himself illustrates how difficult it is for anyone to think of Herzlich as just another football player these days. In Coughlin's next breath, he explains how much Herzlich does in private: the kids he inspires, the empathy he displays. For Herzlich, the challenge is determining not just how to do both, but how to be both. "That's going to be something that I have to figure out," he admits, "but also harness it and help as many people as I can."

"Making the same drive out if downtown Philly that I did when I was diagnosed. This time it's to go play the #eagles. Feel very Blessed."

On his way to a game at Lincoln Financial Field in late September, Herzlich tweeted that message to the hoards of fans who follow him, a group that had grown to 42,216 by Friday afternoon. The Giants were playing the Eagles, the team Herzlich grew up following as a kid in the Philadelphia suburbs. As the team bus drove from a Center City hotel to the Linc, it rolled past Pennsylvania Hospital, where Herzlich's life changed dramatically in May 2009, when he went from a linebacker who preyed on opposing ballcarriers to a cancer patient who prayed for his own life.

At the time, Herzlich was a junior at Boston College and one of the best college football players in the country. The previous fall, he'd been named Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year and was considered to be a likely first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Had he left school, he would have become a millionaire overnight. Herzlich, however, elected to return to B.C. for his senior season, when he planned to solidify his spot as one of the nation's top linebackers.

That plan came to an abrupt end when Herzlich started experiencing pain in his left leg during the winter of 2009. The pain didn't go away. Eventually, after a series of exams, he had an MRI. The diagnosis was Ewing's sarcoma, a rare, potentially life-threatening bone cancer that strikes 250 to 400 Americans each year.

"The improbable part, to me, is that you can have a perfect storm of a guy who's the best linebacker in the country and a disease that hits [400] people a year," says Herzlich's father, Sandy. "And those two trains will hit each other on the same track in the middle of nowhere."

Of those diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, 70 percent survive. Herzlich, though, didn't just want to survive. He wanted to play football again. He wanted to reach the NFL. He wanted to develop into the player he once had the potential to become. He thought to himself, "What was my life going to be like if I couldn't do the thing I love?"

With the help of Kevin Mahoney, chief administrator for the University of Pennsylvania Health System, and a family friend, the Herzlichs looked at treatment options at hospitals throughout the country. They went from Texas to Massachusetts and between before realizing that the best medical staff was right here in Philadelphia: oncologist Arthur Staddon and surgeon Rich Lackman, both at Penn Medicine. "If you got to have a sick kid," Sandy says, "this is the greatest town in the world to have it."

Herzlich's doctors told him they had three priorities: Life, limb, and league - in that order. "The doctors were thinking, life we got; limb we'll get to, NFL, that'll keep him quiet," Sandy says. "Mark clearly was focused on all of those equally."

The doctors hoped for survival, but they assumed Herzlich would never run again. In fact, the only people who gave him a chance were the four members of the Herzlich household and his linebackers coach at Boston College, Bill McGovern. "I don't think the doctors in the beginning believed he'd be able to do it," Sandy says.

Herzlich wanted to keep his options open. Instead of electing surgery, he attacked the cancer with chemotherapy and radiation, and had a titanium rod inserted into his leg. "I had a lot of doctors, basically everyone else I saw, told me they would not perform radiation," says Herzlich. "They said, 'I'm not going to do it because you will die.' "

Sandy remembers driving with his son on Lancaster Avenue in Berwyn and discussing the decision. "What I want you to do as a father is not what I would do if I were in your shoes," Sandy told him. "I wanted him to go the safest route and make sure he lived ... But I played football, never with his skill or his level. If it was me, with my leg, I would have taken the same route Mark did. Doing the one that isn't as secure but keep the rest of your dreams and goals alive."

The radiation burned his skin from his lower thigh to his groin. The chemotherapy caused him to lose his hair and sapped his lower-body strength.

For a Halloween party in October 2009, Herzlich, still experiencing the effects of chemotherapy, dressed as Mr. Clean. At the party, he met a woman named Danielle Conti, who knew about Herzlich the football player but not about Herzlich the cancer patient. "The fact that we met while he wasn't a football player was kind of good," says Conti, now Herzlich's girlfriend. "He was taken out of the thing that he loved to do, and unfortunate as that was ... it was great because I got to know Mark as Mark, and not the star BC football player, which a lot of people knew him as."

Conti, whose grandfather is in BC's football hall of fame, witnessed Herzlich's incremental progress, from surviving cancer to returning to campus to returning to practice. And she was there on Sept. 4, 2010, when Herzlich led Boston College out of the tunnel to play in his first football game in almost two years.

He was back playing football, but it soon became clear he wasn't the same player as when he left. At times there were glimpses of that player - the leaping interceptions that would bring tears to the eyes of his mother, Barbara; plays that would cause her to shout, "My baby's back!" But there were also plays in which he was a step too slow, when he missed a tackle he would have made two years earlier. Even Sandy remembers thinking: He's not where he was. He's not an NFL player at this point.

In the last four games of the season, something changed. Herzlich began to resemble the player he had been. Even so, for the bulk of his season, his play had not suggested he was still an elite NFL prospect. His stock plummeted further when he ran a 4.92-second 40-yard dash in February's scouting combine. In April, when the NFL invited Herzlich to the draft - a distinction usually reserved for the top prospects - he knew it was primarily as a publicity stunt. He didn't stay, but he was still surprised that he was not among 254 players selected.

He had hoped the Eagles would call. "How great would that have been to play at home?" he thought. He played three sports at Conestoga High School. His parents started Conestoga Youth Lacrosse. He played CYO basketball at Saint Monica, recreation-league football for the Conestoga Generals. During his chemotherapy, he wore a kelly-green Eagles T-shirt.

He had done a private workout with the team and they had hinted that they liked him, so he felt slighted when the organization selected three other linebackers in the draft. When the NFL lockout finally ended in July, the Eagles, Giants and Ravens showed the most interest in signing him as an undrafted free agent. Andy Reid even called. By then, though, Herzlich was looking elsewhere. "If the Eagles wanted him, they should have drafted him," Sandy says. "They made every indication they were going to and they didn't." Or as Herzlich himself explains: "When it came to signing ... you [the Eagles] put your mark on three different guys. How good a shot am I going to get?" He liked his chances of making the Giants' roster. There was a strong Boston College connection in the organization - Coughlin had been BC's head coach, and team president John Mara is an alum. Plus, the Giants seemingly had an open depth chart.

In July, Herzlich arrived for his first day, passed his physical and started the six-week process of trying to prove he could make an NFL roster. "I had a hard time accepting the fact that I was going to go through my whole life, have something dramatic happen, and be a different person afterward," Herzlich says. "I wanted to go through my life, have the dramatic thing, leap over it and be the same person I was before. And that's where the surviving mentality didn't just mean surviving."

There were 10 rookie free agents at training camp, not to mention other rookies and roster hopefuls trying to survive the eventual paring from 90 to 53. Only one had a press conference. Only one walked with "60 Minutes" following his every step. Only one drew fans screaming his name. If Herzlich wanted to blend in, his first days didn't help. "I'm very proud of what I went through and want to help as many people as possible," Herzlich said on his first day at training camp. "But for the next 28-30 days, it's all about learning the plays, executing on the field, and making plays."

Coughlin had followed Herzlich's career - and had even remarked to Keli before the Giants signed him how inspiring he found Herzlich's story - but he never once had a substantive conversation with Herzlich about cancer during training camp. That's how Herzlich wanted it. Teammates knew who he was, answered questions about him, but treated him like any other rookie. Still, there were always questions. There were always fans. And whenever Herzlich was discussed during the preseason games, commentators retold his story. Barbara Herzlich described training camp as "stressful" for her son, because he was trying to survive the roster cut at the same time he was realizing how big of a platform the NFL could provide. "The last thing any undrafted kid needs is '60 Minutes' following him around and the crowd cheering his name," Sandy says. "But at the same time, he recognizes that he is important to folks for whatever reason it is, and he doesn't want to deny them that and turn that part off."

He struggled at first. He was running with the fourth-string defense and often appeared more like someone who was filling out the roster than he did a potential starter. But he got better as training camp wore on. He intercepted a pass on the goal line in the second preseason game. He got a sack in his final one. The coaches realized that when they corrected Herzlich, and he rarely made the same error again. And at 6-4 and 246 pounds, he offered the frame the Giants covet.

The weekend the Giants were making their final cuts was the opposite of draft day, when he wanted his phone to ring and it never did. On cut day, he didn't want his phone to ring. He was hopeful, but not desperate. It was easy to understand why. Not long before, he had been worried about a biopsy showing that his cancer might have spread. Now he was waiting to find out if he had been cut from the team. "In the certain time period, they're both very stressful," he says. "But I'd say life or death is a little bit worse."

He spent Saturday morning eating breakfast with other rookies at IHOP. He moved to Chili's in the afternoon to watch the Boston College game. By 6 p.m., rosters were finalized. The call hadn't come; he was one of four rookie linebackers to make the Giants. Sitting at his locker after his first practice as a full-fledged Giant, Herzlich suggested that one chapter of his life - the one in which he wondered if he could simply make it back - could be closed. The next one could begin. "I want to try to go from being a feel-good story to making an impact on the field," he said.

The team made it clear that the roster spot had little to do with what happened the previous two years of his life. The Giants aren't a charity; Herzlich made the team because he was good enough. But the coaching staff couldn't help but watch him and realize that the toughness he revealed during camp seems to be evidence of something greater than a lifetime of playing football. "He made this team of his own ability. Nobody gave him anything," Coughlin says. "By the same token, he is someone that when you look at him and you know what he's been through, you know what he's made out of."

Herzlich has played in every game this season - all on special teams. That could change when the Giants play the Eagles this week. Now, when he takes off his helmet, the head that once was bald because of chemotherapy is now topped with the Mohawk he wore in 2008, an allusion to a time when he was the best player on the field, when he didn't have to worry about life or death, about losing his leg. "Do I remember how I physically felt three years ago, four years ago when I was playing?" Herzlich asks. "Not really. I feel like I'm making the same plays, doing all the same plays. But to actually be in my body back then, I don't really remember exactly what that was like. I feel like I'm back."

Barbara intercepts the letters. They come all the time. Kids who get cancer. Parents who have children with cancer. Even adults who have learned that their cancer has returned. Some look for inspiration. Others provide warning. All want to connect with Herzlich. "During the season, it's pretty much football, football, football, and a little bit of cancer help," Herzlich says. "During the off-season, that's where it can really pick up." Barbara reads them all, though. She gets emotional as any person would, much less a mother of a cancer survivor. "They want hope," she says "I understand that. It's not easy on me to read these things either, because what do I do with it?"

Herzlich's brother, Brad, said their mom began looking at the letters when Mark was sick because they started to affect him. "To be confronted with so much mortality, he couldn't handle it at times," Brad says. "I know he really wants to help everyone. People come to me all the time. People come to my parents all the time. Emails. Facebook messages. People want us to have Mark get in touch with them. Mark does his best to do that, but he also has his own life. And I know he gets disappointed sometimes that he can't be everywhere at once."

Barbara and Sandy are sitting at their counter, surrounded by photos of Mark and Brad. There's Mark as the student who went to summer camps in Maine, where he canoed and did artwork. There he is as a teenager who wondered whether he'd play college lacrosse. There he is at the apex of college fame, winning awards and being featured in national magazines. There he is when he lost his hair, lost his muscle and came close to losing his life.

"People forget that he's not Superman. He lives, in the back of his mind, with the fear every day that it can come back," Sandy says. "Part of the inspiration is people feel the ability to unload on him, forgetting that he's more than an image and role model. He's a person, too."

On the day of Coughlin's event, a young cancer patient named Michael came to the Giants' practice. While the players stretched, Michael bypassed Eli Manning to find the Giants' backup linebacker. Just like the 60-year-old at the Jay Fund dinner, Herzlich is Michael's favorite player. Herzlich laughed and chatted with the boy. "Right then and there, it hit me," teammate Zak DeOssie said. "Mark knows how this kid feels. I'm sitting and stretching with my teammates ... they're saying how remarkable a story it is. We haven't really grasped the enormity of what he's been through."

Herzlich said the key is what he labels "segmenting" his life. When he's in the team facility, he's entirely committed to football. He even rented a place a few minutes away so he can arrive early and stay late. There are times when he makes a phone call to someone in need or attends a charity event, and his Twitter feed is saturated with cancer patients and survivors, to whom he often sends kind words or retweets good news. The team monitors requests for him to give interviews and make appearances.

During the off-season, he wants to focus on building a foundation and possibly write a book. "Not a preachy book, just getting my story to more people," he says. "That's something that's tough to do without sounding pompous. I do it to let people know it's possible. Because when I was going through it, Lance Armstrong, it was great to hear from him. It was great to hear from [Red Sox pitcher] Jon Lester," both of whom got hit with cancer. He remembered receiving letters from ordinary people telling their tales of Ewing's sarcoma. One was from someone who loved to play volleyball, overcame the disease and is playing volleyball 20 years later. "Those are the types of stories I want to share with people," Herzlich said.

Mahoney, of Penn Medicine, believes that Herzlich's vitality is primarily the source of his own will, which is why Mahoney hopes his life is not limited football. "I do have high hopes that when Mark puts up his pads, he'd be a great president of the United States," Mahoney says. "He has so much to offer."

Herzlich smiles at the suggestion of politics, providing the all-too political answer that he doesn't yet know enough about that line of work. "But I do want to interact with people," he says. "I don't want to be behind a desk."

And he's also thought about his legacy. There will be a time when Herzlich retires, when he moves onto what's next, and he'll be cast as either a football player who survived cancer or a cancer survivor who played football. Considering the choices, Herzlich provides an answer that isn't even the one his parents expect from him. "A cancer survivor that plays football," Herzlich says, knowing this might come as a surprise. "Football is fun, a game, a job right now that I take seriously. But it's not usually life or death. Saying one thing is more important than the other is impossible to do, because surviving cancer, to me, meant playing football again."

Football is what he'll always be identified with, he says, but he doesn't ever want to lose sight of what he went through, and what it can do for other people. "Look at Jon Lester," he says. "A lot of people don't remember that he had cancer." Then, he points to Lance Armstrong, whose connection to cancer is not forgotten because of the help Armstrong continues to provide. Herzlich wants to have the same effect on the world - even if he can't do it at this moment. "Right now, during the football season, I'm a football player," he says.

A friend of Barbara's called during the Giants' recent win over the Patriots, when Herzlich forced a key fumble. The television commentators were talking about Herzlich and didn't mention the illness. This made Barbara smile. Not because they skipped over his struggles, but because Herzlich was viewed as a football player.

Maybe that's why Herzlich doesn't think his recovery is complete. He has survived cancer. He made the NFL. The next step is being the player he believes he can become. "The odds have been not in my favor since May of 2009," Herzlich said. "I don't know whether it's stupidity or being naive, but I didn't believe anybody. I thought if I just worked as hard as I can for as long as I can, I could be able to fulfill my dreams. It's looking like more of a possibility, but it's going to take some time."

Then, he smiled. He survived cancer, training camp, roster cuts . . . but that's not enough. All he cares about is what's next.

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