Giant talks the talk after unlikely walk

INDIANAPOLIS -- The strength of Mark Herzlich, cancer survivor, could be heard in the hopeful voice of a college student from Georgia, a 20-year-old woman on the phone from her hospital bed in Atlanta to confirm an honest-to-God Super Bowl hero had given her another reason to fight.

JoLynn Johnson, member of the Darton College dance team, had just endured four hours of surgery to remove a malignant tumor from her left leg, and she wanted a caller to know the rookie linebacker for the New York Giants had given her a pep talk she won't soon forget.

"He was very inspiring," Johnson said. "When people hear that you have cancer, they say, 'I'm so sorry,' but Mark wanted me to stay positive about it. He told me to be strong, have faith, and to know that I can do exactly what he did."

Upon receiving a text about Johnson from San Diego Chargers linebacker Takeo Spikes, Herzlich phoned her Monday before boarding the bus in Jersey for his near-impossible journey to Lucas Oil Stadium. For 15 minutes, Herzlich told Johnson a story from his time at Boston College, his triumph of good over the evil that is Ewing sarcoma. The scholarship football player was coaching the scholarship dancer as she lay 90 minutes away from surgery.

"Having someone to look up to, someone who's doing what he loves to do, means a lot to me," Johnson said. "Mark's call definitely helped. I feel if he can do it, I can do it."

So there you have it: Mark Herzlich, a Giant recovering from a broken ankle, a backup who might not make the active roster for the big game against the New England Patriots, stands as the strongest man at Super Bowl XLVI.

He was responsible for the tweet heard 'round the world, a message far more powerful than any game-day guarantee, Joe Willie Namath's included.

"2 yrs ago I was told I might never walk again," it read. "Just WALKED off plane in Indy to play in The #SuperBowl. #TakeThatSh*tCancer"

Herzlich gained thousands of new followers and millions of new admirers, and on Tuesday he spent an hour in the role of goodwill ambassador, advancing a message of hope he never intended to limit to 140 characters or fewer.

"Realistically," Herzlich said of this trip to Indy, "it shouldn't have been possible."

In May 2009, when the ACC Defensive Player of the Year was diagnosed with bone cancer, he stood a much better chance of losing his life, or losing his left leg, or losing his career, than he did of making it to the biggest stage in sports.

At first Herzlich attributed his pain and swelling to the occupational hazards of major college ball. He figured he had a nerve problem, a herniated disk, something wrong with his spine. Soon enough, Herzlich said, "it felt like knives being stabbed into my leg."

Herzlich and his parents, Sandy and Barb, were returning home from an encouraging visit to the doctor -- he suspected nerve damage -- when they walked through the door to a ringing phone. Another doctor, an orthopedist, had an entirely different report in his hands and told Sandy to get his son in a car immediately and head to the oncologist's office.

"Mark didn't even know what an oncologist was," Sandy said by phone.

The football star found out the hard way. If further tests showed the cancer had metastasized, the oncologist said, Mark would have a 10 percent chance to survive it. If the cancer was contained in the leg, he had a 60 to 70 percent chance to live.

Amputation and death were among the possible outcomes, but an NFL career was not. When the Herzlichs made it back home, Mark raced upstairs to his room, Sandy retreated to his office, Barb to the living room, and their younger son, Brad, to his room. They all needed time to process this nightmare alone.

Mark kept asking himself, "Why me?" and came up with no satisfactory answers. "I shut everyone out," he said. "I didn't want to talk to anyone. I was thinking to myself, 'Why did this happen? I didn't do anything to deserve this.'"

The Herzlichs were tough people from tough stock. Mark's grandfather, Eric, was 4 years old in 1939 when his parents fled Austria because, Eric said by phone, "it was a great time to get out of Austria if you were Jewish."

Eric's father, Morris, left nearly everything behind to escape Nazi persecution, made it safely to England, and eventually boarded his family on a ship bound for New York, the same ship that carried Mark's maternal grandmother to the States before it was sunk by a German submarine on the way back.

Morris arrived in New York with $10 in his pocket, and started building a new life for his family by selling neckties in the street. So no, generations later, the Herzlichs were never conditioned to accept life's worst-case scenarios. They were fighters, achievers, people accustomed to winning.

A youth lacrosse coach, Sandy played lacrosse and football at Wesleyan University. A high school squash coach, Barb had been a three-sport star at Wesleyan and had been inducted into the school's inaugural Hall of Fame class with none other than Bill Belichick.

They had one son good enough to play linebacker at BC, another son who ultimately would be good enough to play linebacker at Brown. But on the day of Mark's diagnosis, the Herzlichs' charmed world came crashing down around them.

"Everything had been a bed of roses for Mark, and I felt so badly for him," Barb said. "Here he was up in his room dealing with all of his fears and doubts by himself. He had to do it on his own."

Mark needed only two hours to win Round 1 from cancer. He came downstairs and announced, "Don't worry about it. I'll beat this thing."

Two days later the Herzlichs learned the cancer hadn't spread. The linebacker had taken Round 2.

Six months of chemo followed, 50 cycles of radiation, a drill put through the center of Mark's femur, and a titanium rod inserted for support. Oh, and in the middle of it all Mark took one high-stakes gamble most doctors didn't want him to take.

He had a choice of surgery to remove a portion of his femur, ending any hope of a football comeback, or radiation treatments regarded as no sure thing.

"Three or four doctors said they would absolutely not do radiation on me," Mark said, "and would absolutely not put a rod through my femur because the cancer would spread and I would die within six months.

"But in order to be the person I wanted to be again, I had to be able to do things like run around and play with kids in the backyard or go play football. And that's the choice I made."

It took its toll. Barb couldn't sleep or eat; a friend bought her a case of Ensure to help her stem the weight loss. Mark did weight and cardio work in the gym but lost definition and strength. He endured grueling physical therapy sessions, including body massages that he said resulted in "probably the worst pain I've ever been in. I had to actually tear muscle off the bone and tear the scar tissue away. I was screaming on the massage table."

Mark treated cancer as a beatable opponent, not a deadly disease, and so he returned to the Boston College lineup before entering the NFL draft. No team called his number; Mark wasn't the best defensive player in the ACC anymore.

"Cancer," Sandy said, "probably cost my son $15 million."

Mark could've signed with the Baltimore Ravens or Philadelphia Eagles, but he liked his chances with the Giants. It didn't hurt that his old man was a fanatic who wore Sam Huff's No. 70 in high school and college, or that the Giants had a history of using BC as something of a farm club.

Against all odds, Herzlich made the roster, played on special teams, and earned some time with the defense before he suffered a broken ankle against New Orleans. Now that he's finally cleared and off the injury report, Herzlich can only hope Tom Coughlin activates him on Sunday.

But there's a bigger cause in play here. Herzlich hadn't been dwelling on his staggering recovery from cancer, but something about stepping off that team plane and seeing the red Super Bowl carpet inspired him to do an end zone dance at cancer's expense.

So Mark fired off that tweet, marched into Lucas Oil Stadium the next day, and held court on the very spot where he ran his slowest 40-yard time ever (4.91) at the NFL combine.

Herzlich talked about the cancer victims around the world who have contacted him through social media, and mentioned something about a young woman in a hospital he'd called to offer a helping hand.

Down in Georgia, a fighter named JoLynn Johnson doesn't care if the Giants beat the Patriots on Sunday. She knows Mark Herzlich won just by showing up.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.