Greensboro, N.C.—Preseason meetings are supposed to be about games. It’s supposed to be about whose team is going to be best, who’s going to start at quarterback, and all of those fun things that we like to talk about as we kick off the official start of college football.
But every now and then we have to be reminded that behind the uniform and the statistics and the TV coverage and the billions of dollars that are generated from college football, there are human beings playing this sport.
You meet a kid like Mark Herzlich of Boston College. You get a chance to sit with him in a golf cart for four hours and between shots, you get to hear his story.
And it’s a helluva story.
A certain clarity comes to life when you only have one goal. And this time last year Mark Herzlich was thinking about one thing and one thing only.
“I wanted to live,” he said.
You see, Mark Herzlich had his life all mapped out. He was the 2008 ACC defensive player of the year. In that season he intercepted six passes, more than any linebacker in the country. He thought seriously about entering the NFL Draft as a junior but he loved school and thought he could use another year of college football.
“I knew exactly what I was going to do,” said Herzlich. “I had a plan.”
During spring practice of 2009 he kept feeling this pain in his left leg. Maybe it was the workout schedule. Maybe he was sleeping on it wrong. But he figured it would go away.
Mark Herzlich then got the news that a 21-year-old man entering the prime of his life should never have to hear: The diagnosis was Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that afflicts one out of 600,000 people. The survival rate is over 70 percent if it is caught soon enough. But if not, the cancer is very aggressive.
“It was like, whoa, everything I’ve been planning for has just been washed away,” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t smoking or doing any of those things that cause cancer. I sat around in my room for several hours and felt sorry for myself. But there it was and I had to deal with it. It wasn’t going to go away.”
Herzlich announced that he would not play football in 2009 as he fought the cancer with chemotherapy. He was told to forget about football because if he did survive, it was unlikely that he would ever be able to run again. That’s because the cancer had been found in his left fibula (the large leg bone beneath the knee) which had been considerably weakened. There is no way that it could hold up under the pounding of football.
Herzlich has several bands of many different colors on his right wrist. They tell the story of his disease and his recovery. A black one has the words: “Pray Until Something Happens.”
“Early after I was diagnosed someone reached out to me and told me to pray specifically for what you want,” he said. “So I prayed to beat cancer.”
He did. After months of chemotherapy, last October Mark Herzlich was declared cancer-free. Then he prayed to reach his next goal.
“I decided that I wanted a certain quality of life and that included being able to play football again.”
Herzlich has been medically cleared to participate when practice at Boston College starts on Aug. 9. He participated in drills during spring practice but there was no hitting. That will come later this summer. He can’t wait.
“I’m a linebacker. I hit people. That’s what I do,” said Herzlich.
But there are no guarantees that Herzlich’s left leg will hold up. He had surgery to place a titanium rod in the center of the fibula to give it more support. The doctors have done every test possible and say the leg is ready.
He has also been told that if the leg does break, the healing process will be very long. So there is an element of risk involved as he returns to football.
“The doctors say it’s ready. I say it’s ready. And now it’s time to try,” he said. “If a freak accident happens and it breaks, then I just have to a accept that. But I’m not going to walk away now.”
It is an understatement of the highest order to simply say that Herzlich has inspired his teammates.
“It didn’t seem like, emotionally, Mark ever had cancer,” said offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo, a Rhodes Scholar candidate.
Herzlich said that before he got cancer, he was guarded around people he did not know well. Now he wants to reach out to those people and tell his story. He wants to know them. He has joined forces with others to raise over $200,000 for cancer research. Regardless of how football turns out, educating people about cancer and sharing his story is something that he’ll do the rest of his life.
“You meet so many people whose lives have been touched by cancer,” said Herzlich. “It can be tough when the ones they love did not have a good outcome. It is the kind of shared experience that bonds people.”
Example: Our golf foursome on Monday also included North Carolina coach Butch Davis, who is also a cancer survivor. They had a lot of talk about, from losing their hair to losing their taste buds to the chemotherapy. “I had to put hot sauce on everything just to taste it,” Herzlich said.
So this season I am going to break one of my professional rules. I have always gotten along well with players but I was always taught that there needs to be some distance between a journalist and the people he covers.
But not this season. This season I’m pulling for Mark Herzlich. He has beaten cancer and now stands at the doorway of being able to play college football again.
Here’s hoping that he kicks the sucker down.
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