NOT SO VERY long ago, Mark Herzlich might have thought the most difficult challenge he had, as a star linebacker for the Boston College Eagles, was to take on a 320-pound offensive lineman intent on pancaking him in front of a stadium full of spectators. But the Conestoga High graduate knows better now.
The most frightening thing Herzlich has ever faced is not another football player, no matter how big or strong or determined that player is. Even if he makes it to the NFL, no helmeted opponent can ever strike as much fear in the 6-4, 244-pounder's heart as did the presence of malignant cancer cells in his body, eating away at his health and literally threatening his life. How can anyone, even as committed an athlete as Herzlich, face down something you can't see, can't touch? Until he was diagnosed with an especially virulent form of bone cancer, Herzlich was unaware that something known as Ewing's sarcoma even existed.
"I had never heard of any kind of sarcoma," admitted Herzlich, 23, who last night became the 76th recipient of the Most Courageous Award presented by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, at the group's 107th annual awards dinner at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill. "Now I know more about Ewing's sarcoma than anyone would want to know."
Makes sense. You have to know the enemy before you can gird yourself for the battle to defeat it. It's one thing Herzlich has learned from football, a willingness to do whatever it takes, for however long it takes, to come out on top. Nothing that is ever worth achieving happens quickly or easily. There always is a price to pay for victory.
Could pushing yourself through two-a-day practices in summer heat be any worse than undergoing strength-sapping, 6-hour daily chemotherapy treatments?
"You can't get anything much worse than that," Herzlich said of the chemo, unless, of course, it was the radiation therapy.
After the cancer was detected by an MRI in May 2009, Herzlich underwent surgery to have a titanium rod placed in his left leg. For him to even come back to play again, much less entertain dreams of the NFL, would have been considered a long shot by most people. Then again, Mark Herzlich is not just anyone.
"At the time of my diagnosis, I set two goals," he said. "My first goal was to be declared cancer-free. My next goal was to get back on the football field. Both of those goals were fulfilled."
A third-team All-America, the Atlantic Coast Conference's defensive player of the year and a finalist for the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker as a junior in 2008, Herzlich - whose doctors confirmed on Sept. 29, 2009, that no trace of the Ewing's sarcoma could be found in him - was in the express lane for an NFL career and a fat pro contract.
It still might happen, but the fact that his cancer is in remission, and that he played well this past season, if not as well as 2 years earlier, is no guarantee of anything. His is an uplifting story, but the next chapter of the football portion of it has yet to be written.
"I had to have a good Senior Bowl, which I felt like I did," said Herzlich, who sat out the 2009 season. "Now the combine's coming up. I have to perform well there. I'll have a better feel after that.
"I had interviews with different teams. A lot of it will have to do with the confidence a [general manager] or a coach has in my recovery."
And if there is any part of his game that can still be improved upon, figure Herzlich to work tirelessly to achieve his full potential. His inspiring conquest of cancer is testament to that. He credits football for toughening him up for that fight of fights.
"I was fortunate at Conestoga that we were able to win most of our games, but my first year there our freshman team went 1-10," he recalled. "We won our last game of the season. We had to keep pushing, keep pushing to get through.
"That kind of mental conditioning is what gets you up at 4:30 in the morning in Boston to walk through the snow and go to workouts. You do it not because you love it, but that's what it takes to become good."
It's the same way he attacked cancer, although cancer is no game.
"You take everything for granted before something like this happens," Herzlich said. "Once you're told you possibly don't have much time left, you focus on the things that are really important in life. For me, that was my family, my really close friends and the game of football. And football is last on that list.
"If I didn't get cancer, I'd be in the NFL right now, but I wouldn't have a purpose. One thing I really gained from this is a direction, a purpose."
Herzlich has become active in raising money to fund the search for a cure, and he always tries to find the time to visit with children stricken with Ewing's sarcoma, which is a pediatric cancer.
"Everybody is not as fortunate as I have been," he said. "Not everybody comes out all right. But if I can put a smile on some kid's face, or give him a reason to hope, I'm there."
Here are the honorees from last night's 107th annual Philadelphia Sports Writers Association dinner in Cherry Hill:
Roy Halladay (Phillies): Outstanding Pro Athlete
Bill Bergey (Eagles): Living Legend
Bobby Convey: Native Son
Elton Brand (76ers): Good Guy Athlete
Flyers: Team of the Year
Sheila Reid (Villanova cross country): Outstanding Amateur Athlete
Shane Victorino (Phillies): Humanitarian Award
Jack Childs (Drexel wrestling coach): Special Achievement
Fran Dunphy (Temple basketball coach): Special Achievement
Al Bagnoli (Penn football coach): Special Achievement
Herb Magee (Philadelphia University basketball coach): Special Achievement
Matt Hoffman (Rowan football): Special Achievement
Villanova Cross Country, Gina Procaccio: Special Achievement
Gabby Mayo (Texas A&M women's track): Frank Dolson Award (Penn Relays)
Wyatt Middleton (Navy football): Army-Navy MVP
Mark Herzlich (Boston College football): Most Courageous Award