BOSTON - Mark Herzlich roamed the dome-covered football field at Boston College's Alumni Stadium, sharing with his teammates the techniques and wisdom that had him destined for NFL stardom before a cancer diagnosis delayed - but did not derail - his promising career.
With his hair and eyebrows growing out and even a short beard to serve as an exclamation point on his recovery, Herzlich returned to practice on Thursday for the first time since he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer found in bone or soft tissue called Ewing's Sarcoma.
"I can't believe it's been a whole year playing without him," linebacker Mike Morrissey said after the hour-long workout without coaches, pads or contact.
The former Conestoga star, who finished radiation in August and chemotherapy in November, said his energy has returned enough to enable him to join his teammates in the weight room on Wednesday and a day later in the winterized bubble that covers the field in the off-season. In shorts and a cut-off workout shirt, Herzlich took his turn rotating into seven-on-seven drills before addressing the group as a whole before practice broke up.
"I'm very excited, even to do just a little stuff today," he said. "I want to jump in, but I also want to be smart and not take any risks that can get me hurt."
The risk of injury, Herzlich noted, is not from the cancer but from the lack of conditioning after a year in which he lost his hair and the finely honed edge he needed to bang around on a football field a dozen Saturdays each fall. He was pronounced cancer-free in October, and doctors told him there are no other lingering effects of the cancer or its treatment. He is checked every three months, just to make sure.
"We're all overwhelmed by his story," offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo said. "He's done something only a few people around the world can say they've done - beat cancer. And he's picked up right where he left off."
Herzlich was named the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year in 2008, intercepting six passes - the most in the nation for a linebacker - and leading the Eagles with 81 tackles. But in May he announced that he would miss 2009 after being diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma.
The diagnosis sent him home to bed, dejected.
But not for long.
"After about two hours of sulking, I realized, 'This has got to be something I overcome,' " Herzlich said. "Once I made that decision, I was ready."
Herzlich returned to school in the fall and was a staple on the BC sideline, running out of the tunnel with the team and serving as a righthand man for coach Frank Spaziani. Bald from treatment, Herzlich also became a fixture at midfield, collecting giant novelty checks from opposing schools that donated to his chosen cause, Uplifting Athletes, which works with college athletes at several campuses to raise awareness of rare diseases.
But his contributions were also behind the scenes, Spaziani said. When a couple of freshmen arrived on campus for orientation this month, "Mark got right on them, welcomed them and made them feel at home," Spaziani said.
"That's the kind of stuff that goes unnoticed, because it's not tackles and sacks," Spaziani said. "He's talked with guys, tried to work with them, tried to coach them. He's just a leader, and although he's not playing and participating, he's certainly doing a lot of that leadership of the field.
"His enthusiasm, and his passion for what he's trying to get accomplished just has to rub off. It has to be positive."
Herzlich has heard from other athletes, including cancer survivors such as cyclist Lance Armstrong and Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester, and he said he is eager to pass on the encouragement to others facing a startling diagnosis. He said he has spoken to 50 or 60 families, usually kids with cancer or their parents who have written to him; he tries to help when he can with an autograph or a few words of encouragement.
He said he has also helped raise about $200,000 through Uplifting Athletes.
"I like this being part of me," he said. "It's something that's exciting, in that I get to be able to help other people."
But he is hoping that he can once again make an even bigger contribution on the field.
And that started this week.
"I'm really happy about the being back, being able to compete, being in the weight room and on the practice field," he said. "I think I can be as good as I was [in 2008]. I haven't lost my edge for the game."
Morrissey, for one, wouldn't be surprised.
"Never doubt Mark," he said. "He's a special person and a special player. He's NFL-bound, and I think it's going to be a great career for him."
Spaziani said he isn't ready to pencil Herzlich in for starting the opener.
But if it can be done, Herzlich will do it.
"He's working at it. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed," Spaziani said. "I think that's too early to tell. I think Mark would tell you that himself."