MARK HERZLICH looks at the world differently today. He's no longer staring ahead through sunken eyes beneath pasty skin, enervated by chemotherapy treatments. He's no longer pleased just to play a round of golf without feeling completely spent. He's no longer hoping and praying to walk out of the tunnel at Boston College's Alumni Stadium to play football again. He knows he will.
His visions are back, too. The one where he's coming off the edge, a relentless blur in a maroon No. 94 - his 94 - with a steely glint in his eyes and those long, brown, curly locks flapping under that gold helmet, slamming head-to-chest through some quarterback.
He just nodded the day the call came. With his family gathered around, Herzlich put down the phone. It was Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving; doctors had checked every microparticle of bone dust, the biopsies, the MRIs, and they told him his ordeal was over - that he was clean.
There was no exuberant reaction. Just a hint of a smile.
You see, Herzlich, a 6-4, 245-pound All-Atlantic Coast Conference linebacker and 2006 Conestoga High graduate, has been medically cleared to play football again after beating Ewing's sarcoma, a pediatric bone and soft-tissue cancer that formed in his left femur, diagnosed last May 12. But Herzlich always knew he would beat it. There was never a doubt.
Yet, he hasn't won. Not in his mind. He won't feel that he completely beat the cancer until he puts on the pads and is playing football again - playing at the high level he's accustomed to. Working toward a goal that at one time was thought to be impossible. His journey back begins when spring football starts for the BC Eagles.
"That's the goal, to play again and play soon, it's more than what the doctors told me about beating the cancer," said Herzlich, who lives in Wayne with his parents, Sandy and Barb, and younger brother, Brad. "I want to play in the spring game. I realize I can't push it, so I'll have to be patient with this. I want to play this spring, but more importantly, I won't think this whole thing has come full circle until I walk on that field when we play Weber State in September. For me, that's when it will be over."
In the meantime, the building has begun. Herzlich is already up to his playing weight, 245. Hair buds have sprouted on his head, and his regular skin tone has returned, replacing the pale complexion he had during chemo. He was benching 415 pounds last February, and he started lifting again a month ago, bench-pressing 225 for 10 reps. That's now up to 355 for three reps.
It's going to take some time before he's able to run, recovering from surgery on Nov. 21 that placed a titanium rod through his left femur. He will have the rod for the rest of his life, a byproduct of the tumor.
More important, he's back to doing the things he has always loved - like working out. He lost 30 pounds the summer between his junior and senior years at Conestoga, improving his speed dramatically. That same kid, the one who pushed to prove he was a Division I football player, has reemerged.
"I'm killing myself, but in a good way right now," said Herzlich, who led BC in his junior season with 110 tackles and 81 stops, six interceptions, eight pass break-ups and two forced fumbles in being named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. "I started lifting again pretty hard a month ago and working on getting back. I'm sore, but I'm not feeling any aches or pains, at least not what I felt when I had the cancer."
"I can see Mark coming back, I really can," BC coach Frank Spaziani said. "Mark is a special person and there's no question how special he is as a football player, but he's that much more special as a person. What happened to him touched everyone in the Boston College family, it makes you change your perspective. In the football world, it's so consuming, you can get lost and lose track of the real world around you. Mark brought us all back to what reality is about.
"We had to keep moving forward last year, because that's what Mark wanted us to do. We couldn't be consumed by Mark's situation, because Mark wasn't consumed by it. He worked with us and his goal was always to come back on the field. He never had any doubts he could beat this thing. It's why I can definitely see Mark coming out of that tunnel on Sept. 4 when we open against Weber State. I'll certainly give him every chance, if he's approved by his family and his doctors give him the OK to play."
The beast that used to surface on Saturdays is still raging inside Herzlich. But it has been a long, arduous road that took him from a celebrated, possible high NFL draft pick, according to a number of draft gurus, to a walking international inspiration who received trinkets from supporters in Ghana, Mexico and Israel, letters of encouragement from cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and words of advice from former New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a mild stroke in 2005 just days after playing in the Pro Bowl.
Bruschi and Herzlich spoke in September - one linebacker to another. Bruschi's message still resonates.
"He told me to be proud to be a survivor, and it's something I'll always remember," Herzlich said. "At the time, I didn't know what the future was going to bring. He said I may be fine after this, but it's important to be proud of what I've done, and to be an inspiration to others who know my story.
"You look at the big picture and you wonder why this all happened. I'm not very religious, but this experience made me more religious. I've said the same prayer every day: 'Please let the cancer go away and please let me play football again.' One prayer has been answered and I'm on the way to the next one."
The praying began May 12.
The car ride home was quiet. Sandy and Barb sat in the front seat, looking ahead, feeling the gamut of emotions. They had sat there with Mark at Pennsylvania Hospital and were told by doctors that the white mass detected on the MRI of Mark's left thigh was a sign of fluid, a sign of a cancerous tumor.
Herzlich was told he would never play football again, but maybe he would be able to jog.
On the way home, Herzlich sat curled up in the back of his father's SUV, away from the world, his thoughts tethered to an iPod, looking out the rear window hoping to wake up from the nightmare. As the SUV pulled up to their driveway, Herzlich said he told his parents: "I wonder if I'll ever play football again - and I don't want to die."
The life Herzlich - who is called "Superman" by his BC teammates - was planning on having and the life he was told he would have were suddenly two different things. In an instant, that pain in his left thigh took on new meaning. How can this be?
Herzlich kept saying to himself, "This isn't happening, this isn't happening."
The despair didn't last long.
"I remember going straight up to my bedroom and not saying anything to anyone," Herzlich recalled. "I think I'll remember May 12 forever, but it's not the way you might think. It's a day that changed my life. Above my bed are all the football trophies I ever won, from when I was little to Boston College. I kept replaying the doctor's words in my head that I'll never play again. Then I thought about all the times I was told I'd never do something - like play Division I football. You think about the positives, and overcoming."
He stayed in bed for 2 hours with this burden, then went downstairs to see his parents. "I told them that I was going to beat this, and my father saw that look in my eyes, the kind of look I get on the field where nothing is going to stop me," said Herzlich, who graduated in December with a degree in marketing and recently got accepted into Boston College's graduate school of business to work on a master's in finance.
Herzlich has been pain free in his left leg since May 19. He underwent aggressive therapy, 36 days of chemo over 6 months. "We had a lot better Thanksgiving than we did a Memorial Day," said Sandy, a financial analyst. "It was definitely a relief, though more of a confirmation of what we thought. It wasn't a surprise, more like a subdued celebration. We were pretty much resolved that Mark was going to beat this thing."
Herzlich is not exactly out of trouble, though the recurrence rate of Ewing's sarcoma is 3 percent to 4 percent. For the next 2 years, he will have checkups every 3 months; between 3 to 5 years, a checkup every 6 months; and from 5 to 10 years, an annual checkup. Ewing's sarcoma patients have a 70 percent survival rate when the cancer doesn't spread. The 5-year survival rate when the disease is localized and treated with chemotherapy is 80 percent.
Herzlich walks around with reminders of what he endured. He wears a silver necklace of a leg blessed by an Native American tribe, along with a gold crucifix and a gold No. 94. But he refuses to wear his No. 94 jersey. He refused to wear it during Senior Day at Boston College, instead walking out in his BC coaching gear. Still, no No. 94.
"I won't wear it until I'm playing in it," Herzlich said. "I definitely look at myself a lot differently than I ever had. It's funny how the Brian Piccolo story was the only thing I could relate to cancer. I remember seeing that and I thought I was screwed, but my story will be a little different. There is a lot more to my story."
The flash-point moment won't come until Herzlich looks up in the stands and sees Sandy, Barb and Brad, and the many friends and family who have been with him during this process. He will point to them in Alumni Stadium as he leads the Eagles onto the field, remembering the 6 months that changed his life and a life that touched countless others.
"I think I'll always be linked to cancer," Herzlich said. "When I was first diagnosed, I didn't want any part of it. I was almost embarrassed to tell people I had cancer, because you don't want people feeling sorry for you. Now I hope I'm linked to cancer for the rest of my life. It's about being proud to be a survivor and being proud of keeping my name with this disease. If someone hears my name, I hope they think of me as a great football player who helped people battle cancer. But the battle won't be over until I play again." *