Herzlich: Football hopes helped beat cancer

INDIANAPOLIS – Cancer threatened to prevent Mark Herzlich from getting here, but getting here is what helped Herzlich beat cancer.

“Once I got diagnosed, I said a prayer every morning, every night, to be cancer free, to play football again,” Herzlich said Sunday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “That pathway, that goal is what got me to the end.”

Herzlich, who grew up in Wayne, PA and graduated from Conestoga High, said he often talks to cancer patients who struggle without having such a clear destination in mind.

“The biggest problem that they have is not having a light at the end of the tunnel, not having a goal,” Herzlich said. “My goal happened to be running out of the tunnel with my team, so it kind of got me through those things.”

Herzlich grew up pretending to be Randall Cunningham in backyard football games. But it wasn’t until after his junior year at Boston College – when he was named ACC defensive player of the year – that he started to realize he could actually reach the NFL. Others who had won the award, he knew, had gone on to the pros. But a short time later, in May 2009, he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, in his left leg. He missed the next season and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He had a 12-inch rod put inserted to bolster his leg.

Teams have wanted to check out the leg – bending it to test its flexibility. But where some players have expressed surprise at the poking and prodding they’ve undergone at the combine, Herzlich is used to it.

“I had all the answers because I’ve done it before,” he said.

Herzlich said he feels “100 percent” healthy, and hopes to prove it to teams Monday, when linebacker work outs begin. After entering the 2010 season with just one week of practice, Herzlich said the time off between the end of his college season and the combine has him feeling stronger and faster.

Since returning to the field, “I haven’t had an offseason yet to get my strength back, to get my speed back. My first practice was three days before my first game,” he said. In the past month, however, “the gains I’ve made have been incredible.”

Herzlich may have more to prove here than other prospects who had more routine preparations for their senior seasons.

“Monday, when we work out, it’s going to be a fun day for me, because they’re going to go, ‘oh, wow, he can move well again,’” he said.

Herzlich, who said he can play as a strong-side linebacker in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, or inside in a 3-4, had four interceptions last season, but said he needs to work on man-to-man coverage, since he played mostly zone in college.

Herzlich was as comfortable talking to the press about his game as he was discussing his illness. He recalled a phone conversation with former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. He got the call in his dorm room Sept. 29, 2009, the same day he learned he was cancer free.

“He said, ‘Mark, you’re a survivor now, be proud of being a survivor,” Herzlich said. “They’re words that have stayed with me throughout the whole process. To me, that meant, get your story out there. Raise as much money as you can, be helpful to other people.”

Herzlich told his story again Sunday. Monday he’ll work on writing the next passage.

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