Cancer survivor Herzlich is feel-good story in troubling times

Let's be honest. The NFL isn't exactly giving us a whole lot to cheer about these days.

In Washington, D.C., they're talking about how to divvy up billions of dollars. They're keeping everyone with a financial or emotional attachment to the game twisting in the wind, wondering if the offseason is going to end up a train wreck and if we're going to miss some or all of the 2011 regular season. Outraged media and fans bluster almost daily about mistrust and greed run amok.

Now, more than ever, we could use a story like Mark Herzlich's to occupy the forefront of our consciousness.

You want to cheer for something? Cheer for this kid to get a phone call from an NFL team during next month's draft.

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The former Boston College linebacker already has scored the biggest victory of his life by beating cancer. Being drafted would make it so much sweeter and only enhance his ability to do something even more important than making tackles, intercepting passes, forcing and recovering fumbles. Moving to the largest stage his sport has to offer -- presuming that stage doesn't go dark for any length of time -- would better enable him to inspire.

Herzlich has been a good enough football player to be invited to show his wares at the NFL Scouting Combine and show up prominently on the radar of teams seeking help at outside linebacker. But he has fast become someone who realizes his potential for helping others get through the perils he has experienced since he was diagnosed two years ago.

For instance, on his flight to Indianapolis for the combine, Herzlich didn't kill the time by boning up on last-minute pointers to help him excel in workouts or on the Wonderlic test. He read a book by motivational speaker Bob Moawad.

"He told a story about a guy who was always happy all the time, always positive," Herzlich said. "Someone came up to that guy and said, 'Why are you always happy?' He said, 'Everything in life has a choice. You can either choose to be happy or you can choose to be upset about it. If you choose to be happy all the time, if you choose to be positive, you're going to live a good life. You're going to succeed more.' The power of positive thinking."

Herzlich tapped into that power soon after learning the persistent pain in his left leg was Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

Positive thoughts can do plenty when you're having a 12-inch rod inserted in your lower leg to augment support lost to the damaging effects of a tumor. They can do plenty when you're going through seven months of chemotherapy, followed by five weeks of radiation.

They can come in especially handy when doctors give you a somewhat good-news/bad-news prognosis that the survival rate of your particular form of cancer is 70 percent, but you can forget about ever playing football again.

Herzlich dealt with all of it with morning and afternoon prayers that his cancer would go away and he'd be able to resume his football career. "That thought, that pathway, that goal is what got me here," he said.

It helped that, on Sept. 29, 2009, the day he was informed he was cancer-free, Herzlich received a telephone call from former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who rallied back from a stroke to keep playing. Bruschi told him, "Mark, you're a survivor now. Be proud of being a survivor."

And that is exactly what this league could use right now: more stories about personal triumph, less talk about the part of the game where the key players include lawyers and auditors.

The fact no one knows for sure where this story will go from here makes it that much more compelling. Herzlich still has some miles ahead on his long road to the NFL. He needs to convince league talent evaluators that his poor showing during the Senior Bowl -- where he struggled badly in pass coverage, made no noticeable impact as a pass rusher and generally looked stiff in his movement -- was merely a step on the way up his ladder of recovery rather than any sort of finished product. He needs to recapture most, if not all, of what he was as a player when he was the 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year after registering 110 tackles (13 for loss), six interceptions (two he returned for touchdowns), three sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

That won't be easy. Herzlich missed all of the 2009 season as he underwent treatment and recovered from the surgical insertion of the rod in his leg. He played in 2010, and although he was solid (ranking third on the team with 65 tackles, sharing the lead with a pair of forced fumbles and finishing second with four interceptions), he wasn't nearly as dominant as he had been in '08 -- or even '07, for that matter.

Legitimate questions linger about whether Herzlich remains the player once deemed worthy of a first- or second-round pick. How much lower will he fall, if he falls at all? Scouts are understandably concerned about that left leg and whether it will, in any way, hamper his ability to consistently perform at the level necessary to succeed in the NFL. They're also understandably cognizant of the possibility of his cancer coming back.

Herzlich was ready for the battery of medical testing and inquisition he would undergo at the combine. He was armed with letters from doctors "just explaining my whole situation to them, telling them everything's fine ... I was cleared by everybody."

Here's something else one can only hope they'll take into consideration while evaluating him: He is a consummate fighter. For all of the adversity he has ever overcome on the football field, nothing compares with his conquest in a life-and-death battle.

When the fourth quarter arrives, and the defense needs to rise to the occasion to preserve or deliver victory, no amount of physical or emotional exhaustion is going to keep this kid from battling. No ache or pain is going to prevent him from doing what he needs to do to make a play, make a difference. It isn't anything that happens consciously.

"It's just that you get trained throughout your whole life -- whether you had to go through something like this or something else in your life -- where you just train yourself to push through tough times," Herzlich said. "Throughout (2009) I went through chemotherapy and radiation -- those were tough times. That was as tough as it's going to get. So, in the fourth quarter, as tough as it is, what are you doing? Playing football. I was doing something I love.

"Take every minute and don't waste it."

Truly inspirational.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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