Mark Herzlich, Cancer Beaten, Provides Most Inspirational Story Of NCAA Season

  • Dave Levy

The ACC certainly gets kicked around when it comes to football, at least in the last couple of years. Some of it’s justified, when you consider how the conference is in the backyard of the SEC. Some of it is excessive. For example, there are several writers out there who get their jollies by linking to a picture of the half empty stadium in Jacksonville from the 2007 ACC Championship any time a story comes around about the conference title game.

Get your shots in while you can, folks: you may not have the ACC to kick around much longer. Miami and Florida State look to be on their way back, Virginia Tech is actually a contender (as well as probably the only team that can prevent Boise State from ascending to the BCS title game with a Labor Day tilt in Washington) – and, in 2010, the ACC will offer one of the most inspiring stories of recent sports memory in a young linebacker named Mark Herzlich.

Flashback to 2008. Boston College was picked to finish 4th in the Atlantic Division, chalked up to the loss of face of the program Matt Ryan to the NFL. Herzlich became the leader of a team that wouldn’t stand for that prediction, and he was both the motivational and athletic force on a defense that overcame its offense’s shortcomings to win the Atlantic for a second year in a row. However, just a few months after the season ended, Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that strikes as few as 2 in every million young people world wide. While BC had suffered through a bad offseason (remember Jeff Jagodzinski’s flirtation with the New York Jets?), this was certainly the most devastating. Herzlich was done.

Or so it seemed. Herzlich decided he had bigger ambitions than letting something like cancer get him down and prevent him from reaching his dreams of the next level of football. He never shied away from the media, and he never backed down from stating his personal goal of playing once again for Boston College.

Every game, there was Herzlich on the sideline, playing coach along with inspiration, and mentoring the young players. At the center of the 2009 BC team, that was once again predicted to falter and drop back into the pack of the Atlantic, a talented freshmen linebacker named Luke Keuchly rose to become a key contributor – and behind the scenes, he was learning from Herzlich. If the only thing Herzlich contributed again on the team was as future coach, it would have been enough. But he was still committed to coming back after he beat cancer.

Herzlich delivered the news when ESPN’s College Gameday came to Boston College on a rainy and cold morning in Chestnut Hill last fall. When Herzlich told the crowd and the national audience that the doctor said that the cancer was 99 percent gone, and the energy in the surrounding area made it very easy to forget the chilly air that morning:

ACC media days kicked off over the weekend in advance of the 2010 campaign, and not surprisingly, Herzlich was quickly at the center of media attention. In an interview with ESPN’s ACC blogger, Heather Dinich, Herzlich admitted that his goal was to improve on his 2008 campaign, when he was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. If that’s true, notes BC blogger Eagle in Atlanta, there is a chance that a bigger prize may follow a big season from Herzlich (emphasis his):

I think most BC fans expect Mark to contribute and be an emotional inspiration this season. If he is pretty good and BC is pretty good, Mark will still be the center of attention on a weekly basis and an inspiration to us all.

Mark clearly expect more than that. He wants to be better than he was in 2008. If he is better than his ACC Defensive Player of the Year season, he will win the Heisman. That’s not hyperbole. Regardless of my BC allegiance, I believe that after the Reggie Bush nonsense, the media/Heisman voters would trip over each other in a rush to mail in their ballots for the All America, cancer-conquering linebacker from a BCS conference. The hype and pride surrounding his recovery would quadruple if Mark plays that well. No other candidate would stand a chance.

Consider this: last year, even though he never put on a pair of pads let alone saw the field, Mark Herzlich was named a Butkus Award semifinalist. Some didn’t approve of this gesture (cough, Matt Hinton), but generally, it’s the only thing ever questioned about what Mark has done on and off the field.

With the amount of coverage that Herzlich is bound to get over the next week and throughout the season, it’s going to rub someone the wrong way. There will be some narrow-minded, heartless idiot who will write a column by mid-September that they are sick of the story, that they just want to watch football and they don’t care about some northeast ACC school’s linebacker. And they will deserve every ounce of criticism they get thrown back in their direction (trust me, I’ll be first in line).

Boston College opens its season on September 4th against Weber State – a FCS opponent in a game that probably wasn’t even going to be considered for ESPN3. Now, on the opening Labor Day weekend, there is a solid chance that BC could find itself on an actual broadcast throughout the country. Especially if the Red Sox are out of contention come the end of August, local and national media could make this the most hyped cupcake game since Virginia Tech’s contest against East Carolina to begin the 2007 season.

Football is a sport, yes. But at the college level, there are certain things that it can do for a community that are both motivational and bonding. It can help heal a tragedy. And when guys like Mark Herzlich decide that it can not only stare down cancer in the face and act as a worthy goal at the end of treatment, it is a true testament to what it means to be an inspiration. He deserves to be in the same breath as Jon Lester and Lance Armstrong, and no matter what happens with a Boston College team that actually is getting more credit than usual in the preseason, this season will be one BC fans will remember forever.