Commentary

'You don't want to lose hope'

While chasing NFL dream, Giants rookie Herzlich looks back on victory over cancer

Updated: August 13, 2011, 10:33 PM ET
By Ohm Youngmisuk | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Life. Limb. And NFL.

Those are the three things doctors wanted to save when Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in his left leg.

"They felt the NFL was a long shot," Sandy Herzlich said of the initial prognosis for his son, then a Boston College linebacker. "They were first happy if they could save his life and they were happy if they could save his leg."

That was May 12, 2009. More than two years later, Mark Herzlich is not only living, he played in his first NFL game when the New York Giants opened the preseason at Carolina Saturday night.

The undrafted Herzlich, who turns 24 next month, is fighting for a roster spot, and this was his first opportunity to show the Giants what he can do in a game.

[+] EnlargeMark Herzlich
William Perlman/US PresswireSigning Mark Herzlich was one of the Giants' first transactions after the lockout ended.

Of course, Herzlich has already made quite an impression on the Giants.

"Herzlich, I love," Giants linebackers coach Jim Herrmann said. "Obviously his sickness has really driven his focus to succeed -- and he's going to succeed. That's just the way he is. Pretty much he was on his death bed and now he's playing with the New York Giants."

'Getting healthy again meant ... playing football'

In January 2009, Herzlich was coming off a season in which he was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and one of the top linebackers in the country after having 110 tackles and six interceptions for Boston College as a junior.

He remembers feeling pain in his leg early that year. At times, there was pain in his quad and hamstring and there was swelling in his leg. Figuring it was some sort of nerve damage, Herzlich got an MRI but also went to a pain doctor to help alleviate his aches.

On their way home from one appointment, the Herzlich family got a phone call from the doctor who had ordered the MRI on Mark's leg. They were told to make an appointment with an oncologist.

Herzlich was soon diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a form of bone cancer that can spread to other bones, as well as the lungs.

Because doctors did not know if the cancer had spread, Herzlich had to undergo a biopsy.

"The worst-case scenario is obviously [that] it gets into other parts of your body and it completely kills you," Herzlich said. "Second worst-case scenario is if they saw a small fracture in the bone and it was seeping out. Then they would have to amputate my leg right away within hours of finding it out.

"Then better than that would be to remove that portion of the leg, putting in a cadaver bone and being in a cast for six months from the waist down, not ever being able to run again," he continued.

The Herzlichs were told that there was about a 10 percent survival rate if the cancer had spread. If not, he had a 70 percent survival rate.

As a numb Herzlich listened to the odds, his parents were in disbelief that their 6-foot-4, 244-pound son was carrying a potentially fatal disease.

"They gave us the numbers but it never really crossed my mind that he was going to die," Sandy said. "I wouldn't believe it."

Mark Herzlich waited three days before he learned that the cancer had not spread.

Soon came the hardest decision of his life -- and it had nothing to do with whether to sign with the Giants, Eagles or Ravens.

Mark Herzlich had already started aggressive chemotherapy and his body was responding positively. For five hours at a time on some days, Herzlich would have a heavy-duty drug dripped into his chest through two tubes.

The original plan was to start chemotherapy then eventually slice out a 12-inch portion of the thigh bone to remove the cancer and place a cadaver bone in the leg.

But because Herzlich's tumor had shrunk so much due to the chemotherapy, doctors gave the linebacker a choice.

He could opt for the surgery, which was the more common route for those stricken with Ewing's sarcoma and had a high success rate of eliminating the cancer. Or he could continue with the aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, knowing that there might be only a 40 to 50 percent chance the cancer would be eliminated.

There wasn't strong evidence of the treatment option working because fewer patients take that route, according to Herzlich's parents.

The Herzlichs consulted with numerous doctors and experts. Advice varied. If Herzlich underwent the surgery, the cancer would likely be beaten but his playing career was likely over. If he opted to treat it, he was rolling the dice, but with the aid of advanced technology in treatment.

Herzlich received letters of encouragement, including one from a girl who said she bypassed the surgery to keep playing beach volleyball and it worked for her.

"I was focused on how I needed to get better but I also knew if I wanted to be myself I had to be able to play football," Herzlich said. "Those two goals went hand in hand. Getting healthy again meant the same thing as playing football."

'He wanted to live'

Herzlich opted to skip surgery and underwent chemotherapy for seven months, with 50 cycles of radiation.

On some painstaking days back home in Pennsylvania, Herzlich had radiation treatment in the morning, chemotherapy in the afternoon on the other side of Philadelphia then another round of radiation six hours after the morning treatment.

Mark Herzlich
AP Photo/Michael DwyerWhile at Boston College, Mark Herzlich was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008.

"He would give himself shots into his stomach and he had to take all these different medicines," Barbara Herzlich said of her son's treatment. "He took control of making sure what he had to have when he needed to have it. He wanted to live. He wanted to beat this thing."

Herzlich did have one surgical procedure, to insert a titanium rod in his leg to strengthen it.

After missing the entire 2009 season, Herzlich made his emotional return to the football field in 2010 and started in all 13 games, finishing with 65 tackles and four interceptions for Boston College.

Once a possible high-round NFL draft selection, Herzlich went unpicked in April. But that setback was nothing compared to what he had already overcome. He spent the lockout strengthening his body and mind and chose the Giants and all their BC connections -- John Mara, Tom Coughlin, Chris Snee and Mathias Kiwanuka -- over the Eagles and Ravens once free agency began.

Even though Herzlich grew up outside of Philadelphia as a die-hard Eagles fan, his father was a lifelong Giants fan.

"I may have been playing with his subconscious from the day he was born, telling him the Giants were the place to go," Sandy cracked.

Wearing Antonio Pierce's old number, 58, Herzlich has tried to make the most of the few third-team reps he gets in practices. The Giants have moved him around at all three linebacker spots as he competes with sixth-round picks Greg Jones and Jacquian Williams and undrafted rookie Spencer Paysinger for practice snaps.

"Considering he's coming off of cancer, he's still a pretty strong guy," defensive captain Justin Tuck said of his first impression of Herzlich. "I'm excited to see how he is going to run in situations like this. I am hoping that he will still have that edge, that quality of football player he was at Boston College."

With the cancer in remission, life and limb are intact. All that's left on the surgeon's list is one more goal.

Herzlich is working on that the same way he beat cancer.

"When I was going through the process, I wouldn't allow myself to fall into that pattern of thinking, 'Why me?'" Herzlich said. "Then hope would have been lost. You don't want to lose hope or quit on yourself.

"I went through something terrible and other people are going through something terrible right now. If I can help motivate them in a way or just share my story and show them an example of a positive outcome, then I can give them hope."

Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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