Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich is poised to get his first NFL start, completing one of the most dramatic comeback stories this side of Lance Armstrong. With Giants linebacker Michael Boley doubtful with a hamstring injury, head coach Tom Coughlin indicated that Herzlich will likely get the start this week.
“We want to see what [Herzlich] can do and how he will play in there,” Coughlin said. “We already experienced the fact that he communicates well. He seems to know the defense and he can get us lined up.”
“I’m itching to get out there on defense,” Herzlich said.
It’s been a long road for Herzlich. When he was diagnosed two years ago with a rare form of bone cancer, the first priorities for the doctors was to save his life. His dad Sandy Herzlich said in an interview on ESPN, “They felt the NFL was a long shot.”
“They were first happy if they could save his life and they were happy if they could save his leg.”
It’s been a long road for Herzlich. When he was a junior in 2008, he was honored as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He was one of the top linebacking prospects in the country.
Then in January of 2009, he started feeling pain in his left leg. His doctor ordered an MRI suspecting nerve damage, and Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
The prognosis wasn’t good. The doctors told the family that if the cancer had spread, he had a 10 percent chance of survival. If they had caught it in time, he had a 70 percent chance.
“The worst-case scenario is obviously [that] it gets into other parts of your body and it completely kills you,” Herzlich said. “Second worst-case scenario is if they saw a small fracture in the bone and it was seeping out. Then they would have to amputate my leg right away within hours of finding it out.”
The family was stunned. “They gave us the numbers but it never really crossed my mind that he was going to die,” Sandy said. “I wouldn’t believe it.”
Mark had to wait three days for the test results to learn if it had spread or not, but it had not, so now his chance of survival was better than even money, but the chance of playing football again was still a long shot.
The next decision point they reached was equally difficult. The treatment program that the oncologists had laid out included chemotherapy plus surgery to remove a section of bone from his thigh. This was the safest route for him to take to guarantee his survival, but it likely meant that his football career was over before he graduated from college.
When he initially responded well to chemotherapy, they gave him the choice of trying the non-surgery, chemotherapy-only route. It was riskier, but would provide him a chance to continue playing football.
“I was focused on how I needed to get better but I also knew if I wanted to be myself I had to be able to play football,” Herzlich said. “Those two goals went hand in hand. Getting healthy again meant the same thing as playing football.”
Ultimately, Herzlich elected to take the riskier path, and pass on the surgery. Once he recovered, he was able to return for his senior season at Boston College. He finished with 65 tackles his senior season, forced two fumbles, and logged four interceptions.
Now that he’s made the team with the Giants, he is positioned to get his first start this weekend against the division rival Philadelphia Eagles.
Giants’ linebackers coach Jim Hermann said, “Herzlich, I love.”
“Obviously his sickness has really driven his focus to succeed — and he’s going to succeed. That’s just the way he is. Pretty much he was on his death bed and now he’s playing with the New York Giants.”