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Herzlich tackles cancer

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In one stunning moment, Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich went from the top of the world to the depths of despair.

At least that's how it was supposed to be.

Three months after Herzlich was named 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year -- an honor that made him realize for the first time that an NFL career was within reach – doctors told Herzlich that he'd never play football again.

Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that could have taken away Herzlich's ability to run and possibly even his life.

Herzlich was shocked to be sure, but before the sun went down on the day of the diagnosis, he stopped feeling sorry for himself.

"My motto throughout was, 'Stay up,'" Herzlich said. "There are a lot of things that can get you down. Stay positive, keep your head up and always look forward. That's what I did."

Within six months, Herzlich had beaten the disease, and he returned to the football field last season. Now he's a month away from achieving his dream of playing professional football.

"Once I got diagnosed, I said a prayer every morning and every night to be cancer-free and play football again," Herzlich said. "That thought, that pathway, that goal is what got me here.

"I talk to a lot of people who are going through cancer right now, and the biggest problem they have is not having a light at the end of the tunnel, not having a goal. My goal happened to be running out of the tunnel, running with my team. It kind of got me through a lot of things."

Herzlich was a solid contributor for the Eagles as a freshman and sophomore, but he became a sudden star as a junior in 2008. He piled up 110 tackles, but that was only the starting point. With six interceptions - the most for a linebacker in the nation – as well as two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, Herzlich was tabbed as the ACC's best defensive player and a finalist for the Butkus Award.

Suddenly, Herzlich went from being unsure about whether he'd ever be an NFL player to having to decide whether to skip his senior season and make the jump to the NFL, possibly as a first-round draft pick.

He opted to return to Boston College to finish his education. Soon after, Herzlich began feeling an odd pain in his left leg that he decided to get checked out.

Seven months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation followed, as well as surgery to insert a 12-inch titanium rod to support Herzlich's left leg. Early in the 2009 season, Herzlich was declared cancer-free, though he didn't play that year.

"Off the field, I changed a little bit. I'm a different person," Herzlich said. "You don't change your core values or anything, but you become a little more patient. Sitting in a hospital for six hours a day, you've got to become patient."

Herzlich's newfound patience continued to pay off. He took part in conditioning drills during 2010 spring practice, but his full return to practice was delayed by a stress fracture of his right foot suffered last summer. Herzlich didn't practice until three days before the Eagles' season opener.

Herzlich didn't post nearly the numbers he did in 2010 as he had in 2008. He recorded just 65 tackles, though he did pick off four more passes.

He's no longer projected as a first-round pick, but Herzlich believes he's just rounding back into form.

"I really have progressed," he said. "Everybody saw my progression week to week during the season, but a lot of these people don't understand I haven't had an off-season yet to get my strength back, to get my speed back.

"I envision progressing even more, so the next time I step on the field in
an NFL jersey it will be like, 'Wow, he's at his best right now.' "

Even though Herzlich understandably is focused on impressing NFL scouts these days, he hasn't lost sight of how far he's come.

"When I went through chemotherapy and radiation, those were tough times. That was as tough as it's going to get," Herzlich said. "So in the fourth quarter, as tough as it is, what are you doing? You're playing football.

"I'm doing something I love. Take every minute and don't waste it."

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