It’s one of the most inspiring stories in this year’s draft: He was born Sandon Mark Herzlich, Jr., on September 1, 1987, to Sandon and Barbara Herzlich, and became known as Mark. He also has a younger brother, Bradley. They’re a close-knit family, a factor that played a role in his recovery from being diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in 2009, a cancer that attacks bones, and which took away part of his left femur, the bone in the thigh, which has been replaced by a 12-inch titanium rod. Mark moved back to be nearer to them in that time.
Herzlich has won a multitude of awards for the way that he handled his disease, and the way that he created outreach opportunities to convince other sufferers that they could beat their cancers, recover and have any life that appealed to them. He won the Rudy Award in 2010 - an honor that’s given to a college football player each year who shows exemplary character, courage, contribution and commitment. It was presented to Herzlich's father at the American Football Coaches Association convention in Dallas. It was only one of many. He was also given the ACC’s Brian Piccolo Award for the most courageous player during his senior year.
At 6'4" and 244 lb, Mark Herzlich was a tough, highly effective linebacker for Boston College, recoginized as the ACC's defensive player of the year in 2008. He was also a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top defensive player. He pulled in six interceptions that year, the most of any linebacker in the country - and returned two of them for touchdowns, tied for first in the entire country at his position.
All of that changed in 2009, when he decided to have a recurrent pain in his left leg examined. The medical exam showed that he had bone cancer. Many people would have caved under that kind of shock, but Herzlich showed everyone just what he was made of. He may have had cancer of the bone, but it didn’t do a thing but strengthen the young man’s heart. He immediately released this statement:
This past week, I got some news nobody wants to hear. After undergoing some tests to determine the cause of some pain I had been experiencing in my leg, I learned that I have Ewing's sarcoma. Obviously, I was shocked. I had been extremely focused on preparing for my senior year at Boston College and for life beyond that. Now, I must channel all that energy into facing my toughest opponent yet and that is exactly what I will do. At this point, I do not know what this means for my football future, but I am determined to rid my body of this disease so that I can put that uniform back on. Thank you in advance for your prayers and concerns. Together, we will fight this and win.
In his case, the cancer attacked the upper bone of the leg - the femur - and it resulted in Mark having a rod inserted in his left femur. Getting his legs as strong as they were before the cancer is still a work in progress. If you look at tape of his 2008 performance, what we saw in the Senior Bowl didn’t do it justice. What’s remarkable about Herzlich, though, is that he not only beat the cancer - he’s been checked, and is cancer-free - but that he used the time to work harder on developing his upper body strength and returned to the playing field at the same weight that he had been before his ordeal. The legs need time to redevelop, but Herzlich has already shown the grit and perseverance to handle an issue that minor before he steps on an NFL playing field.
Some teams will worry about the cancer returning. Herzlich insists that it doesn’t come into his head. "My health is fine, just like anybody else's," he said. "I got all green lights and don't have any worries."
To go back to his beginnings, like most NFL-level players Herzlich already had that air of a winner about him by the time he was in high school. Playing at Conestoga High School in Pennsylvania, he became the first player to win the team’s MVP award three times. He was a three-time All-Chester county, All-Suburban and All-Main line selection, and still lined up at fullback as well as linebacker in 2003 and 2004, scoring three touchdowns. He led his team, the Pioneers, to consecutive Central League championships. Mark also earned AP Class AAAA first-team honors in 2004 and 2005. He had a team-high 153 tackles in 2005, and had 142 tackles and four INTs as a junior. he was also a star attack man on the lacrosse team, demonstrating his athleticism and his hand-eye coordination.
After deciding on Boston College, he made his presence known immediately. He played in all 13 games his true freshman year, racking up 42 tackles and one sack, a forced fumble and an interception. 14 of his tackles came in a single game against Buffalo. He also was named as an honorable mention to the College Football News Freshman All-America team.
He picked up where he’d left off during his sophomore campaign, moving from playing in every game to starting all of them, including a win over Michigan in the Champs Sports Bowl. He finished the season second on the team in total tackles with 97 - 55 of them of solo variety. Herzlich also led the team with 12 tackles-for-loss for a cumulative 60 yards and added 1.5 sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one quarterback hurry and an interception.
But it was in 2008 that he really broke out and showed the world what he can do. He led the team with 110 tackles (81 solo), six interceptions, eight pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries, and he had three tackles for loss. I gave a partial list of his awards and honors above. To them, add that he was chosen First Team All-American by Rivals.com and Scouts.com, AP Third Team All-American and honorable mention by Pro Football Weekly and SI.com. Herzlich was a quarterfinalist for the Lott Trophy and was chosen as a three-time ACC Player of the Week. It made his situation in 2009 even tougher, but Mark was tougher still.
In 2010, he came back, leading the team onto the field in the season opener against Weber State and racking up five tackles in that game. He ended the season at third on the team with 65 tackles and 50 solo stops, and was tied for first on the team with two forced fumbles, taking second on the team with four interceptions and adding to that four pass break ups. He wasn’t at full strength yet - the procedures, chemotherapy and radiation, and the surgery on his femur to insert the 12-inch titanium rod had taken a lot out of him. He broke a bone in his foot, and another in his hand during the season. Herzlich was undeterred, though. He’d lived with worse. He didn’t miss a game.
On January 9 of 2011, Rivals.com added this note:
The Eagles are No. 1 in the country against the run, yielding just 80.17 yards per game and allowing seven rushing touchdowns in 12 games. The Eagles have mixed and matched up front because of injuries, but the linebackers are what this defense is all about. Sophomore Luke Kuechly is the nation's leading tackler, and senior Mark Herzlich, who battled a series of injuries after winning his battle with cancer, has looked like his old self in recent games.
He was invited to the Senior Bowl, but didn’t have a great week. He was blocked in his attempts to rush the passer, and had trouble in coverage that revealed the limits of his left leg at that point. He knew that this just made the Combine even more important.
The weigh-in day showed that he was 6’4” and 244 lb - nearly perfect for a linebacker. Herzlich didn’t have a great 40 - he had a low of 4.76 and a high of 4.98, despite running much faster earlier in college. He had a 32.5-inch vertical and a 9.4-foot broad jump. He gave 29 reps on the 225-lb bench press and had a 3-cone drill of 7.32. He announced that the leg was fine, but the truth is that he’s had some trouble moving, both backward and laterally. It showed at the Senior Game and it showed at the Combine. On the other hand, the leg isn’t fully rehabbed, and in his final three games at BC, he started to look a lot like the linebacker he was in 2008. During 2010, the Senior Bowl and the Combine, it was clear that he has one thing that NFL coaches really want to hear - he just loves the game. He loves practicing, lifting, studying film (when he couldn’t work out in the early stages of treatment, he spent his time studying film. Look up ‘dedication’ in the dictionary - there’s a picture of him there), and absolutely loves playing anywhere on game days. He pronounced himself NFL material when he defended against then-Hokie and current Broncos WR Eddie Royal, who was playing in the slot. He’s played at Mike and he’s played at the Sam position. He’s comfortable with either.
Mocking the Draft put it simply:
Mark Herzlich has the best instincts as a linebacker in his last two years playing in college football.
Here are Scott Wright’s Draft Countdown comments on Herzlich:
- Good size with a rangy frame, long arms and big hands
- Athletic with fine speed, quickness and a burst
- Very instinctive with a high football IQ
- Has a non-stop motor and does a great job in pursuit
- Covers a lot of ground sideline-to-sideline
- Excels as a pass rusher and blitzer
- Able to take on blockers and then disengage
- Nice ball skills and more than holds his own in coverage
- Has displayed a knack for making the big play
- Fiery, intense and is extremely competitive
- Very mature and is a respected team leader
- Super tough and has a fantastic work ethic
- Offers some schematic versatility
- Ample experience against superior competition
- Durability and long-term health are major concerns
- Needs to hit the weight room and get stronger
- Struggles in space and will miss some tackles
- Marginal agility and change of direction skills
- Can be almost too aggressive at times
He’s already hit the weight room, and continues to do so - he wants his legs to get as strong as his arms have become. The struggles in space were a concern during Senior Week, but he’s still coming back from the effects of both the disease and its treatment. In reality, the rate of recurrence is only 3%, so it’s very likely that he’ll be fine. He tackles well in the open field, and was a top coverage LB prior to the cancer. He says that he has no doubts that he’ll be one again. By the way - his timed 40 during his freshman year was 4.65. As his legs get stronger, he’ll get much closer to that mark.
You can’t fail to be moved by this young man’s story. It has courage, pathos, drama, and lacks only a final happy ending to be complete. I’d bet that one is on the way. Mark Herzlich is open about betting that whoever drafts him - and New England has shown considerable interest - is going to get a guy who, in Jim Goodman’s words, is “...a football player.” When asked by Scott Wright about the effects of the cancer on his game, his measured reply was this:
Scott Wright: How has your battle with cancer made you a better football player?
Mark Herzlich: It has made me more determined. Things naturally came easy to me before as a player. Now I have to work harder. I have more doubters now, which builds up my drive even more.
Scott Wright: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of playing football?
Mark Herzlich: My favorite part of playing football is the excitement and power you feel when you are able to take over a game. There have been many cases in which I feel as though I have been a force on the field physically and psychology. The harder you hit and the faster you make plays, the more the offense has to be aware of you and then you have them where you want them.
Scott Wright: What would you say is your greatest strength as a football player? What area do you need to work on?
Mark Herzlich: My greatest strength is not only my toughness but my skill set. I have natural speed, agility, smarts and great hands. I need to get my full strength back in order to become dominant once again. I also pride myself in my preparation, whether it be film study, nutrition or training. I still think I can improve on all of these areas though. As with anything in life, the things you think you are good at, someone is always better. I hope to find the people that are better than me over the next few months and learn from them how to improve myself as a player and increase my stock.
During his presser at the Combine, Mark talked about being a cancer survivor. He declared himself 100 percent and said battling through the disease has helped him stay positive and motivated when games come down to the wire:
It’s not a conscious motivation. I don’t sit there in the fourth quarter and think, ‘Well, I beat cancer, I can do this.’ It’s just you get trained throughout your life, whether you go through something like this or something else, you train yourself to push through tough times. Throughout the year that I went through chemotherapy and radiation, those were tough times — as tough as it’s going to get. So in the fourth quarter, it’s tough, but at the end of the day you’re playing football. I’m doing something I love. So take every minute, and don’t waste it.
Whatever your career, it’s good advice. To his naysayers who feel that he’ll never get back his lateral movement and his speed, I’d suggest that you never want bet against him. He’s lain in bed, thinking about the reality of human mortality, and come through the fires of that experience hardened and mentally stronger than ever. It won’t take that long for his body to catch up. Someone is going to pull the trigger on him in a couple of weeks. If I were a betting man, I’d lay good odds that he’s going to outplay his draft position. In a few years, I’d expect him to be a solid-to-top starter, and I’d love to watch him on special teams during that time. Whatever the team asks of him, he’s already faced bigger challenges. The phrase is often overused, but this guy is special.
"It's been a journey," said Herzlich, “I talked to people who are going through cancer right now. The biggest problem they have is not having a light at the end of the tunnel, not having a goal. My goal happened to be running out the tunnel, with my team. It got me through a lot of things.”
When all is said and done, the man is talented, hard-working, and courageous. He’s also a winner. You can’t ask much more than that for your team.
I think that he’d look great in orange. Go Broncos!