BC star Mark Herzlich battling his toughest opponent: cancer

Publish date:

Her cursive pen strokes had proven cathartic in recent years. To supplement daily prayers, the colon cancer survivor corresponded with two Marines serving in Iraq. They returned home safely a year ago, and she continued to search for those in need of reassurance. That afternoon she composed a note in flowing script on a piece of flowered stationery:

Dear Mark,

You are young and have so many dreams to be experienced. I've lived for three quarters of a century and am grateful for all the blessings I've been given during my lifetime. I still have a few unrealized dreams that I want to see come to fruition. So let's fight this cancer together ...

Twenty-four hours a day nuns in the infirmary and convent pray for Herzlich. His name appears among the sick on a list of perpetual adoration for which the nuns offer up intentions. Herzlich has never spoken to any of the 40 women or had time yet to respond to them, but Barbara Anne has been his most frequent mailer. "We see the return address and know warm wishes and striking penmanship await," Herzlich's mother, Barbara said.

Hope continues to arrive from unexpected sources. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis lit a candle for Herzlich in the school's grotto and began exchanging text messages with him. Red Sox CEO and president Larry Lucchino recounted his personal struggles with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (1985) and prostate cancer (1999) on Sox letterhead. Seven-time Tour de France champion and testicular cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's invitation to join Livestrong hangs on the refrigerator. "Be as aggressive about your treatment as you are on the field," he writes.

Inspiration fuels his recovery. Two months into an aggressive chemotherapy plan, the 21-year-old has yet to endure an episode of nausea, but his strength is sapped during treatment cycles. The decision to undergo radiation for the malignant tumor, which started in his bone and spread to surrounding soft tissue, instead of surgery two weeks ago was the most significant since identifying the doctors to work with. "I can't even feel the tumor unless I really search for it," Herzlich said, rubbing his thigh and noting that the tumor has shrunk from the tissue.

Change is more pronounced above the skin. At different times, the linebacker has worn his hair braided into corn rows, puffed into an afro and spiked into a Mohawk. To preempt the cancer killing his hair cells, he shaved his curly locks. He has no facial growth for the first time since sophomore year of high school and the follicles on his legs have stayed the same length since chemo commenced in mid-May. "I really don't want to lose my eyebrows," he told BC quarterback and roommate Codi Boek.

All is not lost. He maintains his playing weight around 240 pounds, swims regularly and lifts weights with his upper body. He errs toward caution when outdoors. Since picking up golf he drives tee shots some 240 yards, occasionally off the course. His shots are all arms, though, as he's hesitant to exert himself fully. The cancer gives him a five-percent higher chance of breaking his leg. "If it breaks, the cancer spreads," he said.

For now, only goodwill has metastasized. Meats have been mailed from Chicago, chili came from Cincinnati and Kentucky ice cream came packed in dry ice. A chain of mothers will deliver meals through August, when Herzlich reports to school as a student-assistant coach and resumes classes. "I never even knew you could mail ice cream," said his mother, a tennis teaching pro who took the summer off to aid her oldest son.

There, on the kitchen counter, Sister Barbara Anne's notes (always written on a different color of paper) rest in their own pile. One day after a fawn was born outside her window, she wrote Herzlich about how full of life the newborn looked and enclosed a photograph in the envelope. Another time she related details of her physical rehabilitation with five-pound weights. When I feel like I'm tired, I think of how many more Mark would do if you were here.

Her friendship comes with a caveat. Though she holds no official affiliation with the University of Notre Dame, she can see the Golden Dome from her convent rooftop and has been known to be tardy for prayers when football games run late. In the first letter, she wrote: As you well know, Boston College has been our nemesis. So on Oct. 24 I will be rooting for Notre Dame -- but not nearly as hard as I will be rooting for you!

Love and prayers,

Sister Barbara Anne


Dear Mark,

I am 12 years old and I met you at the spring game. You signed my shoe and it is hanging on my wall in my room and I look at it and pray for you every night.-- Jimmy Kolenda, Southborough, Mass.

His numbers were staggering: nine tackles (one for a loss) and three pass breakups. It was a sunny day on April 25 for BC's spring game, and Herzlich pounced on opposing quarterbacks and running backs like a maroon and gold panther. "You get guys crying over stubbed toes," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill McGovern said. "Mark missed three practices and got four A's and a B on his report card with cancer."

A week earlier, Herzlich, feeling pain in his legs, wasn't sure he'd suit up. During the offseason he had been in and out of doctors' offices since BC's loss to Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl. No prognosis was made. He limped through sprints and moved like an old man on the field. "You expect to break a leg or blow out a knee," he said. "Never cancer."

Discomfort developed inside Herzlich's femur bone three days after the spring game. There was swelling, but no bruising. His mother scheduled doctors appointments for the second week of May, when his academic exams would be over. On May 10, the night before they were to visit with doctors, his mother asked her husband, Sandon, "What if it's cancer?"

He tried to assuage her fears, but she grew emotional. The visit with the orthopedist included an MRI. Curious of what it might reveal, she pulled the doctor into a side examination room and asked: "If this is cancer, would it show up on an MRI?"

"Yes," he said, "but it's highly unlikely."

"Good," she said, smiling, "that's what I wanted to hear."

When she returned into the room, her son asked, "What did you just talk about?"

"If I wanted you to know," she said. "I would have said it in front of you."

The family drove to a pain specialist next. While they were in the car afterward, the orthopedist called Herzlich's cell phone and asked for his mother. Sitting in the front passenger seat, he handed the phone back to her. The MRI detected fluid typically related to a tumor. The rare form of cancer had disguised itself. The doctor had already called ahead to an oncologist. They were to meet with him immediately. "You get hot and cold all over," his mother said of hearing the news. "You can't breathe. It's a shutdown that you don't wish on anyone."

That night Herzlich shared the news with his best friend, Zack Migeot, whom he had known and carpooled with since grammar school. More friends and teammates received text messages over the next 24 hours. Coaches heard from his father via phone while out on the recruiting trail.

The next day Herzlich underwent a biopsy and a bone scan. Kevin Mahoney, a family friend who is a senior vice president with Penn Medicine, stopped by his room at Pennsylvania Hospital. Herzlich was reading a book as his feet hung over the edge. "You don't expect to see Superman like that," Mahoney said.

Chemo sessions soon crowded the calendar. "He'll be an annoying S.O.B. in the chemo room," McGovern said when he heard about the treatments. "The nurse will hear about our Fire Zone and Cover Two."


Dear Mark,

I was playing volleyball in college when I, too, was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma. I am now 44 years old, living at the beach ...-- Lisa Barber, Redondo Beach, Calif.

When he was 15, Herzlich was ready to quit football as a freshman at Conestoga (Berwyn, Pa.) High. During the season's penultimate contest against Radnor High, he played uninspired. His father -- as he had since the days he coached him with the youth league Marsh Creek Eagles -- attended the game. After the loss, he met with his son in the family's upstairs den. "I know you're a way better player than you're showing," he said. "If you continue to not try I won't come anymore."

The next game Herzlich had 10 tackles. "I wanted it again," he said.

If he chose to leave football he had options. He could hit a tennis ball since he was 2-and-a-half, and his mother, who was inducted into Wesleyan University's inaugural athletics hall of fame alongside New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and legendary marathon runner Bill Rodgers, says he was "freaky" since birth.

Football wasn't always a perfect fit. In the second grade he was a 95-pound lineman. The next year he was too big to play with his age group. To suit up he would have to face boys two years older. No, his mother insisted. He would play soccer instead. The next year he played football in an unweighted league, 45 minutes from home.

Herzlich's route to success in lacrosse was much shorter. Growing up, both parents had run a local league, and he proved unique in size and skill set. He established a new Conestoga High freshman scoring record, and then he returned to the football field the following fall. When a starter was injured, Herzlich wound up defensive player of the year. His size was now his greatest weapon.

Doors seemed to blow open for him, but Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia shut the one he most wanted to enter. His talents in football and lacrosse drew him to the Cavaliers, who won the national title in lacrosse in 2003, but Starsia did not offer the 100-mph shooter a scholarship. Powerhouse Johns Hopkins did. "Can you imagine that body running down the field as an attack?" Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "I saw a big, strong, athletic kid that our game really didn't have."

By the time Pietramala drove up from Baltimore to watch a Conestoga football game Herzlich's junior year, he felt he had a chance to land him. On the way out, he thought differently. "I looked back in the rearview mirror that night, saw all the fans and attention and knew he would go for football," the two-time national champion coach said.

Virginia coach Al Groh offered a scholarship, and Herzlich committed the June before his senior year. Interest seemed to wane on the Cavs' part, though, in the months that followed, and Herzlich reconnected with BC recruiting coordinator Jason Swepson when he phoned him on a fall evening. Swepson asked head coach Tom O'Brien if he was still interested in Herzlich. He was, and Swepson told Herzlich he needed to tell Virginia he had changed his mind before BC would go any further. Herzlich had one request. "Can you recruit me as a linebacker?" he asked.

"Absolutely," Swepson said.

He reversed his commitment shortly thereafter, citing comfort with the BC coaching staff as a main reason.

His courters were soon the ones telling Herzlich to shed weight. He weighed 257 pounds when he visited BC during spring workouts his senior year. "If you're not able to run up here, we're tipping you over," McGovern said.

The scales were balanced back home. Pick-up basketball games in the sun were therapeutic. Lifting sessions sculpted his 6-foot-4 frame, and he showed up at BC in August 2006 weighing 233 pounds with eight-percent body fat. His mental capacities were even sharper, and he digested assignments quickly. He played in all 13 games, starting twice. "Even on special teams he had this undeniable will," defensive end Alex Albright said.

Competition wasn't restricted to the practice field. On summer nights, when little else happened on campus, Albright, Herzlich and Boek would ask a security guard to leave open a gate into Alumni Stadium. To avoid going stir crazy holed up in their dorm rooms, the three would play endless games of hide-and-go-seek. Cell phones were put on silent. Alliances were made. "It took Mark an hour and a half to find us," Boek said.

What Herzlich found in Boek was a friend for trying times. Boek began his career at Idaho State but transferred to American River Junior College near his home in Fair Oaks, Calif., when his father, Nathan, was diagnosed with stage-four testicular cancer. After a year watching his father improve, he gained interest from BC and moved in with Herzlich. "He's stolen my playbook a few times and memorized our plays," said Boek, who dressed up as Herzlich for Halloween, replete with an eyeblack mask and a marker-dotted beard.

There were games last season when it seemed Herzlich had perused opponents' playbooks. After Herzlich broke up three passes against Notre Dame in October, McGovern challenged him to not only get his hands on passes, but also to haul them in for turnovers. "It was meant to be like, 'Hey, go jump over a bridge,'" McGovern said.

Two weeks later the linebacker nabbed two interceptions against Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner, returning onefor a touchdown. He finished the season as the nation's interceptions leader for linebackers with six. "Nothing's out of his range," BC linebacker Brian Toal said. "He catches balls out of the jug machine with one hand."

Draftniks deemed him ready for the NFL, but the kid who dressed up as the wrestler Randy "The Macho Man" Savage in tight red shorts last Halloween and double majored in finance and marketing wanted to stay in college. In a matter of days the family went from fielding calls from inquiring NFL agents to choosing doctors. "It was always going to be there next year," he said of the draft. "The tumor would have turned up. I can't imagine a life without football now."

Dear fans,

Some of you may know me because I've come on here before talking about the respect I've got for Clemson fans, but most of you won't. My son is Mark Herzlich, the Boston College linebacker recently diagnosed with bone cancer. I just want to come on here and say how classy the entire Clemson program is ...-- Sandon Herzlich on Clemson message board at Tigernet.com

Ripples from Herzlich's diagnosis reached Kelsey Hudome while she was at an ACC regatta with the Clemson rowing team in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Her father, William, informed her of his plight. She broke down in tears.

Herzlich entered their family picture 10 years ago when he befriended her brother, Bill, who has Down's Syndrome, in middle school. Forever treating him as his equal, Herzlich was asked to play in the Valor Bowl, a high school all-star game for graduating seniors in Pennsylvania that helps raise funds for the Special Olympics. He obliged. At a baseball game that spring, Vinnie DiMartini, whose 14-year-old son, Sonny, also has Down's Syndrome, asked Herzlich to be careful and not jeopardize his scholarship. "There's no way I'll miss this game," Herzlich said. "Your son's always supporting us."

When he was introduced to the crowd, Herzlich carried Sonny above his head in a sprint from the goal line to midfield. "I'm not sure Sonny's been happier," his father said.

They all support Herzlich now. Kelsey Hudome bought a football for the Clemson Tigers to autograph in the training room on campus and has since shipped it to the Herzlich family. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney sent his own thoughts. "Clemson best recognizes that your opponent is your opponent, not your enemy," Herzlich's father said.

Even as he undergoes treatments and prepares for a transfer of care to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Herzlich speaks about the 2010 season as a definitive return date. He is in the market for a car so that he can drive to and from Dana Farber, and plans on taking four classes in the fall semester. He will assist the strongside linebackers -- of which BC has none with playing experience -- in 2009 and be done with his chemo by January, if all goes well. He would then need a metal rod surgically implanted in his leg and to take things from there in terms of rehabilitation. "He's tolerating the therapy very well," said Dr. Arthur Staddon, his oncologist.

As a two-time marathon runner and vice president at a financial planning group, his father thinks of the long run. "Five people think he can return," he said, naming his wife, two sons and McGovern as keepers of the faith. "I told Mark, 'Those doctors know a lot about cancer, but they don't know s--- about you.'"

There is, at least, one other person who believes Herzlich can play again. His name is Walter Musgrove, a 25-year-old law student at Tulane. Herzlich calls him his "Guardian Angel" and "Inspirational Walter." Four years ago Musgrove broke his collarbone while playing cornerback for Texas State. X-rays taken in the hospital then revealed that he had Hodgkin's Disease. Instead of ending his training, he continued to practice. He went through two-a-days while undergoing chemo and radiation. "You can't let the treatment beat you," Musgrove said.

When Herzlich was diagnosed, Musgrove read about it on a Web site. To contact Herzlich he requested to be his friend on Facebook and attached a message that began: Football player with cancer. I still played. Herzlich welcomed his request. "I just tell him if you want something you pray for it," said Musgrove, who led the Southland Conference in interceptions while beating cancer. "Be very specific when you ask God for things."

Herzlich, a Presbyterian, prays. Above his bed at home hangs a hand-knitted cloth of a boy with doleful eyes and folded hands, praying on his knees. "I was scared in the beginning," he said, "but as you go along you see positives. Things get easier. You start to believe a little more."