The New York Giants historic 2011 playoff run—which yielded the first Super Bowl champion to post a 9-7 regular season record in league history—was especially memorable due to how unexpected it was. The 2011 Giants truly were an underdog success story, but for players like Chase Blackburn and Mark Herzlich, the Super Bowl victory was a perfect ending to an unbelievable ride.
Blackburn and Herzlich both play middle linebacker, and are currently deadlocked in one of training camp’s tightest position battles. Blackburn appears to have the early edge on Herzlich for the starting job—he’ll be running with the first team against the Jaguars on Friday night.
Blackburn may be outplaying Herzlich on the field, but does he have the better life story?
It sounds like some people in the entertainment industry seem to think so. Blackburn told Paul Schwartz of the New York Post that he’s been “approached a couple times” about turning his story into a book or movie.
Blackburn probably spoke on both players’ behalf when he said. “I never really looked too much into it right now, I’m concentrating on football. It’s not what I’m here to do right now. I’m here to play football and hopefully be a starting middle linebacker.”
But for the sake of argument, let’s take a look at the paths that Herzlich and Blackburn took to get to Super Bowl XLVI, and try to decide which would make a better movie.
In 2008, Herzlich led the Boston College Eagles with a 110-tackle campaign as a junior. His 11 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and two interceptions helped earn him earn the ACC’s defensive player of the year award.
But shortly after that season, Herzlich was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. Suddenly, Herzlich’s dreams of playing football had to be put on hold while he fought for his life.
It wasn’t a fight Herzlich was willing to lose. In fact, he never lost sight of his football aspirations, and after one year of recovery, Herzlich returned to Boston College for the 2010 season.
The cancer was a major setback for the linebacker who was once projected to be a first-round pick. After playing his senior year with a titanium rod in his leg for stabilization, Herzlich’s draft stock plummeted.
Herzlich was ultimately deemed too risky to pick, and all 32 teams passed on him in the 2011 NFL Draft. The Giants quickly signed him as an undrafted free agent, and Herzlich’s battle to make an NFL roster began.
Herzlich ended up being one of four rookie linebackers to make the Giants’ final 53-man roster. He even got the opportunity to start in Weeks 11 and 12 (vs. Philadelphia, @New Orleans). In two years' time, Herzlich went from thinking he might not ever be able to play football again to lining up opposite Vince Young and Drew Brees in consecutive weeks.
Herzlich’s story does have a bit of a sour ending, though. An ankle injury ended his 2011 season prematurely, putting one of football’s most incredible comeback stories on hold. But when Herzlich went down, his new teammate—who had an interesting story of his own—took over right where he left off.
Like Herzlich, Blackburn, who played his college ball at Akron, was acquired as an undrafted free agent. From the time he joined the team in 2005 up until the 2010 season, Blackburn provided the Giants with an endless motor and a tireless work ethic.
Blackburn’s hard work and enthusiasm paid off with a steady role as a special teamer and back up linebacker. Although his work in a few spot starts went commended, most of Blackburn’s contributions to the team were drastically under-appreciated.
In fact, with so much talent coming in at linebacker, the Giants front office decided that Blackburn’s services were expendable. The six-year veteran was left unsigned as the 2011 offseason drew to a close and training camp began.
Without a team, Blackburn decided to move on to the next chapter of his life. He became a middle school math teacher, and was able to spend a lot more time at home with his wife and newly born child.
Ironically, when Herzlich went down in Week 12, the Giants knew they needed to bring in a reliable linebacker to fill the void—that’s when Blackburn’s phone rang.
Blackburn, who confidently returned to professional football saying it felt “natural” like “riding a bike” (per Mike Garafolo of the Star-Ledger), proved it in his first game back with the team.
In the second quarter of a pivotal Week 13 matchup with the Packers, Blackburn dropped into coverage and picked off a pass from NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, returning it back to the 11-yard line. The play was a spark for the Giants’ 35-38 scare of the league’s best team.
Blackburn anchored the Giants defense into the playoffs, and played a large part in the rectification of a struggling defense. He collected 19 tackles during New York’s postseason run, and was even responsible for one of the most iconic plays of Super Bowl XLVI along the way.
After evading some pressure put on by defensive tackle Linval Joseph late in the game, Tom Brady heaved a ball deep down the field to All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. Blackburn was able to overcome the single coverage mismatch and out leap Gronkowski for the ball.
The improbable interception was the perfect ending to the most unexpected journey
Both of these players overcame a lot to get to where they are today. Knowing the amount of hard work they both must have put in, it’s difficult to chose one story over the other. But if I were a director forced to make a decision, I’d have to go with Blackburn’s life story. At 29 years old, Super Bowl XLVI was likely the pinnacle of Blackburn’s career.
Besides, it would be too soon to paste a tough-luck ending on Herzlich’s success story. The second year linebacker still has plenty of time to reclaim the starting job and tack on to his legacy. Maybe then we can start talking about making the Mark Herzlich movie.
So, what do you guys think? Put on your director’s cap and tell us which middle linebacker you'd rather see featured in a movie.