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April 28, 2010

Herzlich's comeback almost complete

Sept. 4 is circled on Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich's calendar.

That's the day when Herzlich is going to do it. That's the day when he is going to punctuate his victory over cancer with an exclamation point by charging onto the field for the Eagles' season-opening game against Weber State.

"That probably will be my ultimate high," he says. "I have no idea what it will feel like to run out on the field that day. But it's going to be great. I can't wait to find out."

The Ewing's sarcoma, the rare form of cancer that invaded Herzlich's left leg, really had no chance. He's the ultimate warrior, a tackling machine who seeks and destroys everything in his path. A running back? A quarterback? Cancer? No. 94 has no mercy on any of them.

Remember, this is a guy who may have been the best linebacker in the nation before he got his diagnosis. This is a guy who appeared destined to be an NFL first-round pick.

Since being pronounced cancer-free last fall, Herzlich has become obsessed with becoming his old self.

Herzlich, who is 6 feet 4, tips the scales at 250 pounds, which is up from the 238 he weighed when he last played. Herzlich says it's a "good 250," as he has spent considerable time in the weight room.

"In the beginning, the doctors didn't think I'd be able to play again," says Herzlich, a Rivals.com first-team All-American and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. "But I'm getting to the point where I'll probably be back to at least physically the form I was at pre-cancer. I guess everything kind of worked out for the best. I just have to keep pushing at it, keep working at it."

Last spring, Herzlich felt a pain in his left leg and noticed swelling. It wouldn't go away, so when Herzlich went home after finals in early May, he had an MRI exam performed. It showed a mass that was diagnosed as Ewing's sarcoma, a cancer that occurs primarily in the bone or soft tissue.

"Right after I was diagnosed was the hardest part," Herzlich says. "It was all new, I really didn't know what to expect. We hadn't found out if the cancer had spread or not yet.

"At that point, we were told that football is out of the question. If the cancer had spread, there would be about a 30 percent chance of survival. If it hadn't spread, it would have been a 70 percent chance of survival. When you don't know that stuff, it's pretty tough. The unknowns are the worst part."

After receiving the diagnosis, Herzlich retreated to his bedroom at his parent's house in Wayne Pa., trying to sort through the myriad thoughts as a range of emotions washed over him.

"I took a couple hours to figure out that it doesn't really matter what the doctors were saying, that I was going to try my best to get back to where I was," Herzlich says.

That was May 14, 2009. Herzlich never will forget the date. In fact, since beginning this fight, Herzlich has become great at remembering dates.

May 19: "That's when I started chemo."

Oct. 2: "That's when I announced that I was 99 percent cancer-free."

Nov. 3: "That's when I had my last chemo."

Nov. 21: "That's when I had a metal rod inserted into my left femur."

And, of course ...

Sept. 4: "I think we will have a big party after the game."

It really won't matter if the Eagles win or lose against Weber State, though BC should beat the Wildcats - an FCS program. Just being on the field with his trademark painted face, rampaging sideline to sideline, Herzlich will know he has won.

"I do checkups every three months," he says. "I have another one on May 12. Other than that, it's the type of cancer where when it goes away, it usually stays away. There is a 4-5 percent chance it could come back, so it's something to keep an eye out for. But I really don't see it happening.

"How well the chemo treats the tumor is a good indication on how much of a chance the cancer has of coming back. And my chemo basically destroyed the whole tumor."

Herzlich took part in BC's spring drills. While he wasn't permitted to take part in contact drills, he participated in everything else.

"If you saw him doing drills in the spring, you probably wouldn't have had any idea of what he had gone through," Boston College coach Frank Spaziani says. "Having said that, he still has a long ways to go.

"I don't think he's quite yet 100 percent. There is some mental stuff that he has to overcome. When preseason practice comes, we'll take the next step and see where he's at."

Herzlich spent last season as a de facto assistant, injecting energy and enthusiasm while remaining maniacal about his quest to conquer cancer.

"There are people out there who do believe in me, and that's incredible and that's what keeps me going," he says. "But there also are people who are doubting, and that drives you as much as the other."

Herzlich knows what everyone is thinking: How will he react to his first hit?

"I want to go hit right now, to be honest," Herzlich says. "I feel confident in my leg. I wouldn't go out there and hit if the doctors said I had to be careful or that if someone hit my leg it could be bad.

"I basically have as much a chance of breaking my leg as anyone else on the field now. The problem comes that if I do break my leg, the healing may not be as quick or good as other people who have radiation-free bones."

The rod that was inserted into his left femur offers support, and in practices, BC players typically wear braces. Herzlich will consult with doctors and trainers to see if he should wear one in games, too.

Herzlich knows he's a walking, talking and soon-to-be tackling miracle. He credits the power of prayer, his one-on-one talks with God that forever have changed him in ways he couldn't have imagined.

"When this came about, I started to pray every day, every morning, every night," Herzlich says. "That has even carried on now even with the cancer gone. I prayed to have the cancer go away and I prayed to play football again.

"One of those prayers has been answered, and I'll keep pushing to play football again."

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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