x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mark Herzlich's biggest triumph

Recovery from bone cancer was not enough, playing professional football was what the New York Giants linebacker was aiming for.

Mark Herzlich, the New York Giants linebacker, had four tackles during their defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Mark Herzlich, the New York Giants linebacker, had four tackles during their defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles.

A few weeks after the 2009 draft, Mark Herzlich discovered the source of the intense pain in his left leg.

The mysterious ailment had played no factor in the college linebacker's decision to forego the NFL for one year. Rather, the most valuable defensive player in his conference opted for more college and amateur football, even if it meant deferring the multimillion-dollar contract that awaits any first-round selection.

The timing to receive a diagnosis of cancer is invariably terrible. For Herzlich, it could hardly have been worse. On the verge of reaching the NFL, Herzlich was looking at a life without football. Perhaps, no life at all. Ewing's sarcoma, an unusual form of bone cancer, carries a 70 per cent survival rate.

Herzlich did not retreat from either challenge. He underwent radiation and chemotherapy. Instead of replacing the afflicted area with a cadaver bone, he requested that a foot-long metal rod be inserted in the leg, thinking it would provide more support if - when - he resumed football.

Following a year of recovery, he rejoined his team and played well enough to intrigue scouts. Alas, nobody was willing to spend a draft pick on Herzlich, no matter that he had been declared cured.

One of the previous working stops of Tom Coughlin, the Giants coach, had been Boston College, Herzlich's school. New York signed him as an undrafted free agent after a post-draft tryout.

The money was minuscule compared to a first-rounder's, but Herzlich had an opportunity to demonstrate a cancer survivor could thrive in helmet and pads. Against the odds, he made the roster.

More breaks started to fall his way. A raft of injuries depleted the Giants' linebacker corps, and Coughlin was forced to deploy four rookies last weekend against the Eagles. One was Herzlich, who started his first game after being confined mainly to special teams.

"He's a football player," Coughlin has said. "He's dedicated. He's smart. You tell him one time what to do and he does it."

Herzlich said: "Just being healthy again wasn't a win in my book. I equated football and running out of the tunnel with my team with beating cancer."

He had four tackles in a formidable game for the Giants defence. The offence did not hold up its end in a 17-10 loss to Philadelphia.

"When the national anthem was playing, and I knew I was going on the field, I closed my eyes and thought, 'This was happening'," Herzlich said.

"This is what I've been waiting all my life for. Just a chance."

sports@thenational.ae