Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Mark Herzlich Story

We make too much out of these games. That’s the absolute truth, no getting around it, and there is no more obvious show of it than the Super Bowl. Companies pay out management salaries for every second of advertising and CEO pay for a 30-second spot.
Careers are often made here, reputations sometimes ruined. All over a game that we take much too seriously, or at least that’s the way it often feels.
Then, you’re not usually listening to a man tell you he beat cancer because of football.
You don’t usually hear a remarkable special-teams player for the Giants named Mark Herzlich tell you honestly and sincerely that football may have saved his life from a nasty bone cancer in his femur that could’ve left him dead.
Doctors told him he had a 10-percent chance at survival if the cancer spread, and 60 percent if it hadn’t. Herzlich had higher goals.
“Football, besides my family, played the biggest role in my recovery that there was,” Herzlich says. “I focused on getting back and playing again. That was my goal. Everything in life, you have to have a goal. Something you’re working toward. Football was my goal.”
On the worst days, after the poison of chemotherapy sucked out his hope with his energy, Herzlich played a highlight tape right there in the radiation room. He cut it himself, for a video editing class in college, so he came to know the plays by heart. This one was a sack. Now comes an interception. Wait for the big hit … there it is.
In a way, Herzlich learned to beat cancer before he knew he had it. Before he even imagined having it.
In a way, Herzlich learned to beat cancer by playing football, because the medical jargon didn’t make much sense to him, so he instead imagined cancer as a football opponent.
“When you deal with it (like that), you say, ‘How have I beat other opponents in the past?’ ” he says. “Well, I work hard, I stay focused, and I create goals. That’s what I did.”
That’s not even the best part of his story. Herzlich didn’t just beat cancer. He is now dancing in the end zone, taunting the horrible disease by standing up and speaking to anyone who will listen about it.
In other words, football helped Herzlich.
So now he’s trying to help people.
• • • 
Maybe you heard about Herzlich two years ago, when he was an All-America linebacker at Boston College who listened to a doctor tell him he’d never walk again. Herzlich got angry for about two hours. That’s how long he cussed his luck and wondered why he’d be chosen for a form of bone cancer only 400 Americans are diagnosed with each year.
Then he decided to fight back. First, two months of chemotherapy and an agonizing decision. Three or four doctors said he should have his femur removed, replaced by a cadaver’s, and then he’d move on as a diminished but living man.
Herzlich didn’t want that, though, because it would’ve meant no football, which to Herzlich meant no option. So he did radiation, hours and hours and weeks and weeks of awful radiation that turned him bald and fused his muscles with scar tissue right to the bone.
They measured his progress slowly. First, whether he could stand. Then, whether he could step. Later, whether he could walk, jump, move, and ultimately — finally — play football.
This is the next point you may have heard about Herzlich, about a year ago, when he told the world on ESPN that he had beaten his cancer.
Herzlich still had a ways to go for the NFL, though. It’s one thing to beat cancer, but it’s quite another to beat cancer and come back strong enough to beat NFL blockers, so he went from a projected first-round draft pick to an undrafted free agent.
You may have heard about his story then, when “60 Minutes” came to visit.
If you didn’t, you probably heard about him this week, when he sent the early front-runner for Best Tweet of 2012:
“2 yrs ago I was told I might never walk again. Just WALKED off plane in Indy to play in The #SuperBowl.”
He doesn’t want to just beat cancer. He wants to use the platform of America’s biggest stage to help others do the same.
He wants to pay someone back.
• • • 
Herzlich heard from hundreds of cancer survivors. Make that thousands. Men, women, children, adults, Herzlich heard from them all. Facebook and Twitter are especially good that way.
Just the other day, when he was about to get on the bus in New York, he talked to a girl in Takeo Spikes’ hometown in Georgia who is about to have surgery for the same kind of cancer. That’s five minutes of his day, so if he can help, at all, it’s a responsibility he’s proud to have.
This is probably just Herzlich’s nature, of course. He’s always been outgoing. But something he heard from former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi stuck.
“Be proud of this,” Bruschi told him.
So Herzlich is. He cherishes it. Those are his words. He understands not everyone is like this. Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester beat a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and at some point after his return to major-league baseball, decided he wanted to talk only as a baseball player and not as a cancer survivor.
That’s fine. We all deal with things in our own ways, right? Herzlich’s way is to help. If he can do it, you can, too.
That’s what he learned, anyway, after a diagnosis that included phrases like “chances of survival.” Herzlich heard from an old volleyball player who had the same type of cancer. She went for the radiation, too — to heck with the doctors — and 20 years later is still playing.
“She did it,” he says. “So if she can do it, I can do it.”
That’s why Herzlich is here, saved by football and family and inspiration, cherishing the opportunity to use the biggest sports platform we have in America to pay it back. So, maybe we’re not taking this game too seriously at all.
Maybe it just depends on how you look at it.


The Kansas City Star

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