Mark Herzlich: Cancer-Survivor to Super Bowl Champion

Harry Orbach MillerContributor IIIFebruary 6, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 1:  Mark Herzlich #58 of the New York Giants keeps eyes on the offense during a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 1, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Most 24-year-olds don't wake up in the morning a Super Bowl champion. Most 21-year-olds aren't diagnosed with cancer. Mark Herzlich has experienced both.

One Chinese proverb states, "The journey is the reward." Mark Herzlich's extraordinary journey began in 2009 when he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, after feeling terrible pain in his left leg. Herzlich was told he would be lucky to walk again, let alone ever play football.

At the time, Herzlich was coming off a dominating year. He led the nation in interceptions returned for touchdowns and was subsequently named ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American linebacker. The thought that his "best option was no football" was heart breaking to a player with so much potential.

But Herzlich was determined to live out his dream, to play in the NFL. So instead of taking the doctor's recommended treatment, which was to have his cancerous femur replaced with a bone from a cadaver (dead person), he chose the treatment that would give him the greatest chance of returning to football. This treatment consisted of leaving his femur intact and killing the cancer by radiation and chemotherapy and then inserting a titanium rod into his leg for reinforcement.

The treatments took their toll on Herzlich, but he never strayed from his goal. Luckily, he was not alone. His best friend Zack Migeot, whom Herzlich describes as, "someone sent from God," accompanied him to all of his treatments, no matter the time. It's because of his actions that Herzlich claims, "I don't know if I could have done it without him." A true testament to their friendship.   

Following Herzlich's diagnosis he remembers sitting in his room looking at a picture of himself running with the football, thinking, "I'm gonna do that again." And he did just that. On October 3rd, 2009, only five months after his initial diagnosis, he announced on ESPN, to the surprise of everyone, that he had been completely cured of cancer.

Herzlich celebrates with teammate after Super Bowl victory
Herzlich celebrates with teammate after Super Bowl victoryChris Trotman/Getty Images


Fast forwarding to 2010, Herzlich was back on the field at Boston College for his senior season. By his standards it was an average season, but it was culminated by him being awarded the Rudy Award (given annually to a player who exemplifies the four C's of character, courage, contribution and commitment to their team). Needless to say, the award was well earned.

But for some reason, likely being the decrease in speed and strength resulting from his treatments, Herzlich was not selected in the 2011 NFL Draft. The New York Giants quickly signed him as a free agent and the rest is history. He made the team outright and even started two games during the regular season before an ankle injury derailed the rest of his season. However, it did not derail the Giants, who after playoff victories over the Falcons, Packers and 49ers, headed to Super Bowl XLVI.

Upon touching down in Indianapolis, Herzlich summarized his journey.

He tweeted:

"2 yrs ago I was told I'd never walk again, Just WALKED off plane to #Indy to play in #SuperBowl #TakeThatCancer"

While Herzlich's ankle kept him off the field during the Super Bowl, it didn't keep him out of our hearts. His inspirational story gave new meaning to the game and insight into what the will of a man can lead him to accomplish. Regardless of Herzlich's future success in the NFL, he is now a Super Bowl champion. That's something that nothing, not even cancer, can ever take away from him.

The Chinese proverb is right, "The journey IS the reward." From college football star to cancer patient to Super Bowl champion. That's Mark Herzlich's journey, and it's just the beginning.