Facing a player like three-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and a team like the New England Patriots might seem a daunting task for a seldom-used NFL rookie in a game as big as the Super Bowl.
Maybe not though, for New York Giants’ linebacker Mark Herzlich, compared to what he’s already beaten.
Three years ago, Herzlich, a former high school football and lacrosse star in his native Pennsylvania, was enjoying a promising college football career, coming off an All-American junior season at Boston College, where he an All-ACC First Team selection and chosen as the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2008.
Like most college football stars at that point, Herzlich was fully prepared to have a strong senior year, finish a successful college career, and enter the NFL draft.
But then, something unimaginably awful temporarily derailed the hopes of the seemingly invincible, 21-year-old, 6-foot-4, 244-pound athlete, scaring him way more than anything the most dangerous quarterback could ever dish out on a football field.
On May 14, 2009, Herzlich announced that he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer in his left leg. Defiant and optimistic, Herzlich said, “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.”
Two years, seven months, and 16 days later, just after the Giants’ plane landed on Monday in Indianapolis, the site of New York’s Super Bowl rematch with New England, Herzlich tweeted a short statement that put the spectacle of Super Bowl week in its proper perspective:
“2 yrs ago I was told I might never walk again. Just WALKED off plane in Indy to play in The #SuperBowl. #TakeThatSh*tCancer.”
And thus, another huge milestone was reached in the amazing comeback of the Giants’ inspirational linebacker.
Prior to realizing that special moment, and true to his earlier conviction, Herzlich indeed wore his college uniform again, and did it well.
A burning desire to return to football was a driving force in regaining his health, and just 4½ months after revealing he was sick, Herzlich was cancer free.
Having missed the entire 2009 season, Herzlich started every game in his senior year at Boston College, finishing third on the team in tackles (65) and second in interceptions (four).
Putting the battle against cancer, his toughest opponent yet, in the win column, Herzlich next overcame the tough odds of making an NFL roster when he went undrafted in this season’s NFL draft and was instead selected late (with the 51st pick of the tenth round) in last year’s UFL draft by the Omaha Nighthawks.
With the same type of determination he used to defeat his illness, Herzlich refused to join the UFL and instead waited for an NFL contract offer.
That dream was fulfilled on July 28th, when the Giants signed Herzlich as a free agent after he impressed during the post-lockout preseason.
Low on the depth chart and hampered by injury, Herzlich has played sparingly this season, recording 12 tackles (eight solo).
Due to one more in a rash of Giants’ injuries this season however, he finally started his first NFL game in a Week 11 home loss to Philadelphia, filling in for injured starter Michael Boley at middle linebacker, while recording a career-high four tackles (two solo).
He added three more tackles in a loss in New Orleans the following week, but he fractured his ankle in the game, and hasn’t played since.
However, there appears to be a good chance that Herzlich could be activated for Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday.
Playing in and winning that game would be the culmination of both a personal and team journey that Herzlich foresaw back in early September, when he was sweating out final cuts before making the Giants’ roster to start the regular season.
Not wanting to draw attention to himself until after the season, a confident Herzlich kept his cancer-related charitable plans on hold, saying before the season, "I've tried to put that in the back pocket a little bit, and then as this season progresses and this season finishes, after we win the Super Bowl, then I'll be able to get the charity work going again."
It goes without saying that Herzlich’s story has been a major motivating factor to his teammates, but having him back for the Super Bowl would amplify that effect even more, since the Giants’ season, on a much smaller scale, has paralleled Herzlich’s remarkable excursion.
New York’s 7-7 start put head coach Tom Coughlin’s job in jeopardy and pushed the Giants to the brink of postseason elimination before they embarked on their current five-game winning streak.
Now, Herzlich and the rest of his team could again unite on the same field as unlikely Super Bowl participants, having each survived against difficult prospects in their own ways.
Given what he’s already defeated, the Patriots should worry if they see Herzlich’s name on the active list this week.