Boston College Scoreboard Reads Mark Herzlich 1, Cancer 0
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Each night when Mark Herzlich's head hit his pillow, he prayed he would make it through the entire night. All too often, Herzlich would awaken in the middle of the night to the sound of his own blood-curdling screams.
The screams -- the result of an unknown throbbing pain in his left leg -- occurred so often that Herzlich's roommate at Boston College eventually moved to another room so he could get some sleep.
Several months later, on May 12, 2009, doctors finally discovered the cause of Herzlich's pain. His screams were caused by a nightmare -- the ultimate real-life nightmare. Less than four months before Herzlich's 22nd birthday, doctors told him he had cancer.
Ewing's Sarcoma is one of the rarest forms of cancer. It's a malignant tumor usually found in the bone or soft tissue. Herzlich's nightmare was located deep inside his left femur.
Once this cancer enters the blood stream, the survival rate is estimated at only 10 percent. If the cancer hasn't reached the blood stream, the survival rate increases. But those words meant little when Herzlich learned he had Ewing's Sarcoma.
The doctors told Herzlich -- the 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year -- his football career was over. If he was lucky, though, he might be able to jog again. But that was only if he was able to survive the chemotherapy treatments.
When he got home, Herzlich went upstairs to his bedroom and collapsed on his bed. For two hours, Herzlich's mind raced as he started thinking about his life. Or what was left of it.
"The biggest thing for me was what other option do I have?" Herzlich told FanHouse earlier this summer. "Cancer was going to beat me or I was going to beat it. I had a goal I wanted to reach and this made the drive even stronger."
Make no mistake, the drive is very much alive. And so is Herzlich.
On Sunday at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, N.C. Herzlich will be one of 24 players attending the ACC's Football Kickoff. A senior linebacker, Herzlich will be a media magnet with his charismatic personality, good looks and his inspirational storyline. During the upcoming season, Herzlich's incredible story will be told over and over and over again.
It goes something like this: By the time Herzlich was two years old, he wanted to be a firefighter. As a child, he even wrote down what he wanted to do when he grew up on a 3-by-5 inch note card. "Being a firefighter didn't happen," Herzlich said. "But when I got older I wanted to play football."
As a freshman at Conestoga High in Berwyn, Pa., Herzlich admitted he was "a little slow and a little fat." He didn't make the varsity team, but still played on the freshman squad. His life took a change near the end of his freshman season when Herzlich's mother told him his father wanted to talk to him in his father's upstairs office.
"Dad and I had a great relationship, but I thought this was pretty serious," Herzlich said. "I was nervous walking up the steps."
Sandy Herzlich had a question for his son.
"Mark? Are you having fun?" Herzlich's father asked. "I've seen you do everything since you were little and you usually have passion and love and respect and that's not how you're playing the game."
Mark realized father knew best. "He was right," Mark said. "From then on, I decided I wasn't going to half-ass it or go through the motions. I wanted to play high school football, college and then in the pros. I decided I'm going to be the best at whatever I do and not let anything stand in my way.
"That was my dream. So from that day I moved on and moved forward."
The next game was the final one of Herzlich's freshman season. Conestoga High avoided a winless season with a rare victory as Herzlich had 10 tackles.
A few years later, Herzlich earned a scholarship to Boston College and capped his junior season by being named the ACC's top defensive player in 2008. That December after the season is when he first felt the pain in his leg. The pain got increasingly worse, but Herzlich played through it during BC's 2009 spring drills.
All the while, the doctors could not determine the cause of the pain, which made it even more frustrating.
"This was a very low point in my life," Herzlich said.
Then came the stunning news that Herzlich had cancer. After spending two hours in his bedroom, Herzlich went downstairs to tell his parents what he had in store for cancer.
"My dad saw that look in my eye," Herzlich said.
It was the same look Herzlich had after receiving his father's pep talk as a high school freshman.
"My dad knew I was going to get through it," Herzlich said. "It wasn't easy."
More than a year later -- a time frame that included eight months of chemo, 50 sessions of radiation, surgery on his left leg where doctors drilled out the center of his femur and inserted a 12-inch titanium rod -- Herzlich won his ultimate battle. He beat cancer.
Fast forward to May, 2010, and Dick Vitale is standing inside a packed ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota. Hundreds of individuals have paid $1,000 a plate to attend Vitale's Gala, which will raise $1 million for the Jimmy V Foundation and Cancer Research.
It's an extremely emotional night for Vitale, especially when asked about Herzlich. "Just look at him smiling," Vitale said.
Vitale's Gala guest list that night is a who's who of celebrities from the sporting world. Included are a coach who hoisted the Super Bowl trophy and multiple coaches who have won college basketball's national championship along with other dignitaries.
None has the impact on Vitale that Herzlich does.
"He was told he could never play football again, but he was always smiling and energetic," Vitale said. "I told him you don't realize the inspiration ... how you're inspiring so many people, really the effect he has. There's no greater gift, I think, than affecting generation to generation.
"Look at Mark. He's 6-4, 240 pounds, but this disease brings you to your knees. It doesn't care how big you are. It doesn't care what color you are or what religion."
On Nov. 3, 2009, Herzlich underwent his final chemo treatment. A few weeks later, the 12-inch titanium rod was inserted in his leg. During the Eagles' spring practice, he was limited and held out of any contact drills. But there's no doubt he will be ready for Boston College's season opener.
"Mark said they can diagnose me with cancer, but you can't diagnose my heart and I'm going to play again," Vitale said.
In the season opener against Weber State, Herzlich will wear his trademark inverted pyramid eye black painted under each eye -- until the tears wash it away.
Four years ago, Herzlich never could have imagined a game against tiny FCS member Weber State as the most important of his life.
"For me, I look more forward to playing them than anyone I've ever played," Herzlich said minutes after finishing his speech at Vitale's Gala that drew a rousing standing ovation. "It will be incredible. Once I cross the white line, it will be all business."
Vitale knows otherwise.
"There won't be a dry eye at Boston College that day," Vitale said. "So many people are going to go home after the game and tell their kids: 'Did you see that kid, No. 94? He had cancer. They told him he wasn't going to make it. But he did.'
"What a tribute that is."
Vitale then points out that Boston College's season opener against Weber State is on Sept. 4 -- the ninth month and fourth day. Or 9/4. The same number as Herzlich's No. 94 jersey.
"How ironic is that?" Vitale said.
Ironic, yes. And also inspirational.
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at email@example.com or please follow on Twitter @BrettmcmurphY