Former New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich has beaten the same type of rare bone cancer that Oskar Lindblom is battling, and he had some advice for the Flyers’ gifted 23-year-old left winger: Don’t be afraid to lean on others, like he was at the start of his fight against Ewing’s sarcoma.
“I was 21 when I was diagnosed. I’m in college. I’m on my own,” said Herzlich, a Wayne, Pa., native who grew up rooting for all the Philly sports teams and said Eric Lindros was his favorite Flyer.
“I felt I could handle some stuff on my own, and I think early on in my treatments, I let pride kind of work against me. It wasn’t until I realized that accepting help from other people was not a weakness. It was people showing they loved you and wanted to be there to support you. You should welcome them with open arms and don’t worry about people having pity or feeling sad for you. People are just loving you and want you to be healthy.
“Once that happened,” Herzlich added, “I was able to welcome in my community and not just fight it alone. It becomes a very solitary disease when you get diagnosed with it, but with other people, it makes it doable.”
Herzlich, now 32, has been cancer-free for 10-plus years and works as a college football analyst for ESPN. He and his wife, Danielle, have a 19-month-old son, Boston.
“Life is good,” he said in a phone interview Saturday from his Connecticut home.
Herzlich starred at Conestoga High and Boston College. After his junior season at B.C., in May 2009, a tumor was found in his left thigh bone, and Ewing’s sarcoma was diagnosed. The disease afflicts about 250 children and young adults in the United States each year.
Herzlich, who was 21 at the time, sat out the 2009 season and went through seven months of treatments. He returned to play for Boston College on Sept. 4, 2010 — 15 months after his diagnosis.
Doctors say the recovery period varies, depending on where the tumor is located. The Flyers would say only that Lindblom had an “upper-body” problem, so his tumor is in a different spot from Herzlich’s.
Radiation, chemo worked
Herzlich had his cancer treatment at Pennsylvania Hospital. He received seven rounds of chemotherapy and 50 cycles of radiation, and he did not require surgery to remove the tumor.
“The tumor was wiped out by the radiation and chemotherapy,” he said.
Lindblom, an easygoing, humble sort who co-leads the Flyers with 11 goals, is expected to find out this week the best course of treatment to combat his cancer.
In Herzlich’s case, he had a titanium rod put through the center of his femur to strengthen the bone that was damaged from the radiation
Herzlich, who still has the rod in his leg, completed his treatment in November 2009. That gave him 10 months to rehab for Boston College’s 2010 season and try to get strength back in his legs.
“I did a lot of physical therapy,” he said. "Because of the radiation, I basically had scar tissue between my muscles and my bone. It basically fused my muscle to my bone, so I did a lot of physical therapy to rip up that scar tissue to get the muscles to be able to move again.”
When he returned, he had 65 tackles and four interceptions during his senior year at Boston College. He later signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent, and the 6-foot-4, 246-pounder spent six seasons (2011-16) with the team as a linebacker/tight end/special-teams player, winning a Super Bowl with them in his rookie year.
It took a little while before he regained his athleticism, he said.
“Even now, there’s some atrophy in my left leg. There’s just not as much muscle tone or muscle mass. But I came back, and through the training, your body learns how to adjust to any deficits. My running wasn’t as fast or as explosive, but it was still good enough to have a positive season as a senior.
"It wasn’t until three or four years after I was cancer-free that I started to feel like, ‘OK, I have some of that pop back.’ I don’t think I really got back to where it was, but it did get close, and the farther you get away from the treatment, the better your body feels.”
Herzlich said that if he has a chance to talk with Lindblom, he would tell him the rare cancer “should not be something that defines him and that there will be some good days and some bad days. … What you are doing is not easy, but you can do it. That’s the advice I got, and just the thought that it could be done was really exciting for me.”
Added Herzlich: "Once treatments start and you probably get chemotherapy, you won’t want to eat food, and the taste is going to be drowned out. I got some tips.
"There’s Frank’s Red Hot Sauce and I put that literally on everything I ate, and I tasted it a little bit. I didn’t really eat super healthy [after treatments]. I knew my body was going to be working harder than it ever worked before. Any training I had ever done was going to be nothing compared to what my body had to do internally for this, so it needs calories. It just needs calories. So I would eat pizza or eat chicken fingers or eat burgers. Whatever I could eat and tolerate to make it happen.”
Projected to be high draft selection
Before the cancer was diagnosed, Herzlich had been projected as a top-15 draft pick. After going undrafted following his senior collegiate season, he went to camp with the Giants.
“I was sixth on the depth chart. I didn’t even know it went that low,” he cracked.
He worked his way to being a starter for a couple of games as a rookie, but then he broke his right ankle late in the season. He was unable to play in the Super Bowl that season — a 21-17 win over New England — but he did receive a ring.
Toward the end of his career, he was a linebacker, tight end, backup long-snapper, and special-teams performer.
“I was one of those guys who figured the more you can do, the longer you can stay around,” said Herzlich, who was the winner of the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association’s award for the most courageous athlete in 2011.
Herzlich said his Ewing’s sarcoma battle helped turn him into a Christian.
“There’s a lot of things we can handle as humans, and there are certain things that become too overwhelming, and when it becomes too overwhelming, God can take some of that burden off you," he said.
Herzlich, who wrote a book on overcoming cancer called What It Takes: Fighting for My Life and My Love of the Game, said if he met with Lindblom he would tell him three things: “Put hot sauce on everything, let the pride go, and pray.”