There comes a time in everyone’s life when they must figure out who they are. Unfortunately for Mark Herzlich, a current linebacker for the New York Giants, it took a bout with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, for him to figure out who he was beyond a football player for Boston College.
In a speech at Roger Ludlowe Middle School last Thursday, Herzlich spoke about how cancer changed his self-identity and how it affected him as a football player, and as a person in general.
After his junior season with the Boston College Eagles, Herzlich was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and was projected to be a top 15 draft pick. But Mark made the tough decision to return to BC for his senior season.
“I went to Boston College to get my degree,” said Herzlich, explaining his decision.
What nobody would have expected was that before Herzlich could come back for his senior season, he discovered a searing pain his leg. It was so bad that Herzlich’s roommate had to move out because Herzlich kept waking up in the night screaming in pain.
When he went to the doctor to find out what was wrong, he got the news that it was Ewing’s Sarcoma, and his femur had a massive tumor in it.
“Being told you have cancer feels like a death sentence. But it’s not,” said Herzlich.
He was given a seventy percent chance of survival, and told he would never play football. He went from being one of the top NFL prospects to possibly never taking the field in a football uniform again.
But Herzlich didn’t let this stop him. He went up to his room, put on his music and developed a mindset that would get him past this.
“I went to my father and said I’m gonna be okay. I’m gonna beat this. I’m gonna play football again,” said Herzlich.
He knew from the start what his end goal was: to run back on the field as a Boston College Eagle. What he didn’t expect was the personal struggle that would enfold in the upcoming months of battling the cancer.
“When I used to introduce myself, I would start by saying that I am a football player at Boston College,” said Herzlich. However, when he began his cancer treatment, he could no longer introduce himself as such. He had to figure out who he was.
As he battled the cancer into remission, Herzlich faced an identity crisis beyond anything he had ever faces, and found that identifying himself as a cancer patient could be something he was proud of.
On the stage, Herzlich pointed to his head, on which his hair is shaved into a Mohawk, and proudly proclaimed that a bald head is not a sign of weakness, instead it is a sign of empowerment.
He took that empowerment, and a cancer free diagnosis and put it into hard work and dedication to achieve his final goal of stepping back on the field. He was okay, and he had beaten it … he was almost there.
Herzlich did not get through it without a few bumps in the road. The radiation had weakened his bones and Herzlich, who was desperate to return to his athletic prowess, jumped back into things too quickly and suffered a broken foot.
However, when September 4, 2010 rolled around, and Boston College was preparing for their opening game of the season, Herzlich was ready. Well, maybe not ready; he had yet to put a football helmet on.
Herzlich appealed to then-head coach, Frank Spaziani to just get in for a few plays because it was his dream.
“He said ‘I’ll do you one better. You’re starting,’” said Herzlich.
On stage, Herzlich emotionally recalled his first moment back in the tunnel in uniform, as he led the Eagles out for the start of the season. As he charged out of the tunnel, his teammates stopped and watched in awe and pride, as his dream came to fruition.
It was a moment of fulfillment for Herzlich, as his identification as a cancer survivor came to be one with his identification as a football player.
Unfortunately as the season wrapped up, Herzlich had not regained his former glory. He sat and watched disappointedly as he went undrafted in the NFL draft.
But just as with the cancer diagnosis, he did not see this as a death sentence for his NFL dream. He was aided by the lockout, and was able to work harder than ever during the extended off-season.
As the lockout came to a close, Herzlich was offered a contract with the New York Giants. By the end of the season, he had won a Super Bowl with the Giants.
Herzlich gave an inspirational speech to the cancer survivors about taking the cancer diagnosis and seeing it as an empowerment. He was a perfect example for these children about how to have a positive attitude when trying to deal with the diagnosis.
He was also an inspiration for people going through an identity crisis, and showing them that there’s no shame in identifying yourself first as a cancer survivor.
He showed not only that you can overcome, but you can also be more successful than you could have imagined. He has a Super Bowl ring to prove it.