The Mark Herzlich 'miracle'

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- The seniors on the Boston College football team raced, one by one, out of the tunnel and between two rows of bouncing cheerleaders to the middle of the Alumni Stadium field. As each player was greeted by a parent or other maroon-and-gold-clad family member, he was bathed in the cheers of a swelling crowd, many of the fans having wrapped up their tailgating early to take part in this pregame ceremony on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Each player was given his due, from the massive and marvelous future NFL lineman to the guys who made more modest contributions during their years at The Heights. But the most thunderous roar of all was reserved for the final senior to charge past the waving pom-poms and into a big, tight, never-going-to-let-go-of-you hug from his mother.

And why not? Mark Herzlich has been the story of BC football for the last three years.

Following two seasons in which he established himself as a tackling machine on the strong side of the Eagles' defense, the linebacker from Wayne, Pa., became a nationally recognized star as a junior in 2008. Along with a team-leading 110 tackles, he had six interceptions, more than any other backer in the country, and returned two of those picks for touchdowns. The Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year and a first-team All-American, Herzlich was a finalist for the Butkus Award, which as the name implies is given to the nation's top linebacker. He also was a quarterfinalist for the Lott Trophy, presented to a defensive player who is outstanding not just on the field but in his personal life as well.

Those Lott committee members hadn't seen anything yet.

On May 11, 2009, after a winter and spring spent enduring leg pain and swelling that wouldn't go away, Herzlich saw an orthopedist and underwent an MRI. A tumor was discovered in his left leg, and he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

"At this point, I do not know what this means for my football future," Herzlich, then 21 years old, said in a statement released by BC in the days that followed, "but I am determined to rid my body of this disease so that I can put that uniform back on."

Even amid his sudden and devastating encounter with mortality, Herzlich had the game of football on his mind.

Friends and teammates, however, found their solace in thinking about the man Herzlich had become beyond the boundaries of a football field. Chris Fox, a cornerback and kick returner who was a roommate of Herzlich's at the time and remains one of his best friends, remembers feeling numb for a few days. Then he had a revelation. "I thought, if anyone can overcome this, it's Mark," recalled Fox, who like Herzlich is now a fifth-year senior. "I had lived with him for two years, and had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with him off the field. I'd seen the way he follows through with everything he says he's going to do. His attitude. His perseverance. I thought about all that and just knew he'd be OK. He's the type of guy who can get back to where he wants to be."

Where Herzlich wanted to be, of course, was back on the football field. So he stayed as close to it as possible. As BC's 2009 season opened, he was still in the midst of chemotherapy and radiation, but that didn't stop Herzlich from being a regular at practices and games. An easy-to-spot sideline presence with his newly bald head seldom obscured under a cap, Herzlich wasn't hiding from anything. He was a cheerleader. He was a coach.

"He would come over to me with a little tidbit of advice if I came off the field after messing up," said then-freshman linebacker Luke Kuechly, who in reality didn't mess up too often -- he was ACC rookie of the year and a second-team All-American. Still, he valued Herzlich's input, saying, "It was helpful to hear things from a different angle than the coaches had. He would say, 'This is what worked for me,' and that really helped me understand things."

Among those most appreciative of Herzlich's coaching? The coaches.

"Sometimes a player can talk to other players in a way that a coach can't," said Frank Spaziani. The second-year head coach knew Herzlich especially well, because he was the Eagles' defensive coordinator during the linebacker's glorious 2008 season and first two years at BC. He recognized that Herzlich had something to offer. "Mark's experience certainly helped us," he said.

But Herzlich's most significant contribution to the team, in Spaziani's view, had nothing to do with X's and O's. He gave his teammates a palpable lift just by being there.

"It's always rewarding for a team to see a player who, for whatever reason cannot participate, still wanting to be part of things," said the coach. "That sends a good message to everybody."

Before the '09 season was a month old, Herzlich was delivering an even better message: that he was free of cancer, which remains true to this day. But his relationship to the disease was far from over. He became friends with some high-profile fellow stricken athletes, from Tedy Bruschi to Lance Armstrong. He inspired his teammates to create a BC chapter of the charity organization Uplifting Athletes, which has raised more than $200,000 for research into Ewing's sarcoma. He was awarded an honorary Lott Trophy as well as the Disney Spirit Award, given each year to college football's most inspirational figure.

Inspiration was turned up a notch this past Sept. 4 when, despite missing much of summer training camp because of a stress fracture in his right foot, Herzlich was in the starting lineup for BC's season opener. In a 38-20 win over Weber State, he had five tackles ... and bowled over his teammates.

"To see him back on the field for that first game," said Fox, "was awesome."

"It's amazing to see what a person can overcome," said senior offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo. "I've definitely taken a lot out of witnessing Mark's fight. I now believe that we can do anything in life." A biochemistry major, Castonzo hopes to someday conduct cancer research.

That noble career path is likely to have to wait a few years for the All-American man mountain, projected to be a first-round pick in next April's NFL draft. But although Castonzo will probably be playing his football on Sundays and be paid generously to protect the blind side of some team's prized jewel, the quarterback, he can't imagine ever being more star-struck than he is by Herzlich.

"To be able to say I know Mark well and have watched him do what he's been able to do," said Castonza, "that's something that not many people can say they've been part of. It's kind of cool."

As the season has progressed, so has Herzlich's game. His 60 tackles place him third on the team with an as-yet-undetermined bowl game to come. And despite playing seven of the last eight games with a huge wrap around a broken left hand suffered in early October, he has four interceptions.

"I actually think I'm playing better in pass coverage than I did in '08," said Herzlich. "I've been more fundamentally sound, playing my responsibilities. Being out of the game for a year, that's what you think about."

However, Herzlich's impact on the BC defense -- particularly in the emerging force known as the linebacker corps -- goes way beyond his tackles and pass coverage.

"Playing alongside Mark, you can't help but feed off his intensity," said Kuechly, who in just his second season has developed into the nation's leading tackler. "Mark brings it on each and every play."

And he gets better with each and every game.

"To see him progress through the season has been really something," said Fox. "He's come a long way."

But Fox, the son of former Patriots Pro Bowl safety Tim Fox, knows his friend has a challenging road ahead in order to once again be considered a prime NFL prospect, as he had been following the '08 season.

"He has a lot of doubters as to whether he'll be able to make it at the next level," said Fox, "but I know he's going to give it his best shot. If we've seen anything from Mark so far, that's been proven."

Herzlich, for his part, is simply grateful to be moving forward, to be building toward something.

"That's what I've hoped for all this season," he said. "Obviously, my focus is on winning each game, but in the back of my mind there's always the thought, 'How is my play in this week's game going to affect my chances at the next level?' I've felt myself making progress throughout the season, and I think that's good for the pro scouts to see. And now I'm finally feeling like I'm back to where I was in 2008."

Herzlich put a fine finishing touch on the regular season last Saturday, his timely interception snuffing out a final threat as BC (7-5) won its fifth straight game, 16-7, at Syracuse.

But everything first came together for him the week before, in that Senior Day game at Alumni Stadium. Herzlich recorded eight tackles and a couple of drive-stalling plays, an interception and a diving breakup of a third-down pass, to help the Eagles beat Virginia, 17-13, and sew up bowl eligibility for the 12th straight season.

"He played a hell of a game," said Spaziani. "He looked like the old Mark."

That would be the All-American who once made NFL scouts take notice. The player many have doubted Mark Herzlich could ever be again.

"He's a miracle," said Spaziani. "There aren't enough superlatives to describe what he's doing."

The coach has been around Herzlich for long enough, however, to not be surprised by this. "I don't know if 'surprised' is the right word," he said. "You just marvel at the will of the human spirit, and to see it come through him is inspiring to everyone."

It certainly was inspiring to Castonzo on Senior Day. "His last game at Alumni Stadium, and he's flying around the field," said the big tackle. "It was pretty incredible."

Herzlich impressed even his toughest critic: Mark Herzlich.

"This was the first time I was happy after a game, where I felt I played up to my standards," he said. "I loved winning the past few weeks, but I always felt that there were one or two times when I should have been faster, should have been better. This week I finally felt that edge I used to feel."

That was his good feeling after the game. But what about just before kickoff, when the crowd that had assembled for the Senior Day celebration erupted as he charged out of the tunnel? That was a big moment for him too, right?

"That actually wasn't my favorite part of the day," said Herzlich. "Running out of the tunnel is a bit of a dog-and-pony show, a distraction. I'd rather wait until after the game before celebrating."

This did not go unnoticed by his mom. At midfield Barbara Herzlich hugged her baby boy long enough to tell him how proud she is. She held onto him to pose for a photo she'll cherish. Then she let go. "She told me to go back in the tunnel," said Herzlich. "She knew I just wanted to play football."

Jeff Wagenheim is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.