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Toughest opponent

BC’s Herzlich goes about tackling his cancer fight

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / August 2, 2009

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Here’s his plan, crazy as it may sound for a patient with a rare, highly malignant bone cancer.

Mark Herzlich tips his cap to the chemo nurses and radiation team. He bids farewell to the volunteers who delivered him snacks while drugs dripped through a line into his chest. He thanks the oncologists, surgeons, parking attendants, everyone whose path he crossed on his incredible journey from ill-fated cancer patient to hulking survivor.

Then he plays football again. Boston College football. Atlantic Coast Conference football. And, yes, NFL football.

Crazy as it may sound, the ACC’s reigning defensive player of the year dares to envision the day he emerges from the medical wilderness and gets back on the road to athletic glory. Less than four months after Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, sabotaging life as he knew it, he has lost his hair and some of his youthful sense of immortality but developed an eagle’s eye for silver linings.

He sees straight through the doctors who warn him against dreaming too big.

“In my mind, I’ll play again in 2010,’’ Herzlich said recently at BC before an evening class in the Literature of Adventure. “Everything has gone so well so far, and I keep praying for it every day.’’

He has reason to believe: An MRI last month showed that his early rounds of chemotherapy had all but obliterated a tumor in his left thigh the size of a beehive. All that remains is a spot in the bone, the source of the tumor, which he will attack the next four months with chemo, radiation, and surgery.

“We’re quite pleased with the results so far,’’ Herzlich’s oncologist, Arthur Staddon, said. “He’s doing just wonderfully.’’

His ordeal is far from over, however. Herzlich’s orthopedist and radiologist have cautioned that, even if he beats the cancer, his leg may never recover enough to withstand football’s ferocity.

“This is a very difficult, long course,’’ Staddon said.

By all accounts, Herzlich was projected as a high first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft - a multimillion-dollar prospect - before a freak pain turned out to be a tumor in his femur that mushroomed from his knee to his hip. Though his chances of surviving were promising because the cancer had not advanced beyond his leg, the diagnosis, on May 12, floored the bruising linebacker. He curled up in bed at his family’s home in Wayne, Pa., in despair.

Three hours later, Herzlich picked himself up for the next play in a new game. A game of life, which he attacked with a vengeance.

“His spirit, determination, and will to fight exactly mirror what you see with him on the football field,’’ BC coach Frank Spaziani said. “The world is his oyster and he’s going after it. I wouldn’t be surprised at how positive his outcome will be.’’

Support system in place
At 6 feet 3 inches and 245 pounds, Herzlich has gone from spreading terror in college football to wreaking havoc at a Pennsylvania medical center, where he and his childhood friend, Zack Migeot, have so rambunctiously played the video game “Ultimate Fighting Championship’’ during chemo sessions that nurses have separated them from other patients.

Migeot has sat with Herzlich every minute of his treatment schedule, which this week grew more brutal. Five days a week, Herzlich starts his morning absorbing radiation at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. From there, he commutes to Pennsylvania Hospital for his five-hour dose of chemotherapy. Then he returns for a second radiation treatment.

“He knows he has to do everything he can to get through this, and he’s not being negative at all,’’ Migeot said while the chemo drugs dripped into Herzlich. “He’s living life like he doesn’t have cancer, except when he’s here.’’

Herzlich said Migeot “is one of the reasons I’ve been able to stay so positive through the whole thing.’’

Another reason is Charlie Weis. The Notre Dame coach, who knew Herzlich only from watching him tear apart the Irish offense in losses to BC the last two years, took Herzlich’s diagnosis to heart. He asked a Notre Dame player, Barry Gallup Jr., to help reach Herzlich through Gallup’s father, Barry Gallup, BC’s associate athletic director for football operations. Weis has since spoken regularly to Herzlich, the 53-year-old former Patriots coach telling his 21-year-old football foe that he is lighting candles for him at Notre Dame’s sacred grotto.

“I know we’re rivals in football, but off the field we’re just people who love the game,’’ Herzlich said. “Hopefully, we can keep our relationship going.’’

A spokesman said Weis declined an interview request to avoid appearing as if he were seeking publicity from Herzlich’s plight.

Other big names have reached out to Herzlich, including Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor, who dedicated a stage of the Tour de France to him. Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino, also a survivor, sent Herzlich an inspiring note. General managers of the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs also called to wish him the best.

Then came Walter Musgrove, Herzlich’s self-described “guardian angel.’’ In 2005, Musgrove was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease after he broke his collarbone in the final game of his junior football season at Texas State University. He underwent chemo and radiation until the final days before his senior season, yet played every game and was named the Southland Conference’s football student-athlete of the year and a member of the all-conference team.

Musgrove read about Herzlich’s misfortune and contacted him through Facebook. They talk at least weekly.

“I wanted him to know from another young person who played football and got cancer that he can beat this thing and get back on the field no matter what the doctors tell him,’’ said Musgrove, now at Tulane Law School.

Herzlich said his family, friends, coaches, teammates, and many others, particularly Musgrove, have been remarkably supportive. Members of BC’s football alumni group have assured him they will help launch his professional career whether or not he returns to the field. The BC team, led by Ryan Lindsey, has formed a chapter of Uplifting Athletes and raised nearly $20,000 for research into Ewing’s sarcoma, partly through a weightlifting event last week at The Heights.

“Mark is an inspiration to all of us because of his strength and leadership,’’ Lindsey said. “We will help him fight to the end.’’

The epitome of a student-athlete, Herzlich has twice made the ACC’s all-academic team and carries a 3.2 grade-point average as a marketing major. He aced a summer course in Sports Psychology during a chemo regimen and is pursuing a similar grade in the Literature of Adventure, having recently read “Jaws’’ while he prepared for the five-day-a-week chemo and radiation blitz.

Looking ahead
Before the cancer, Herzlich planned to graduate in December, a semester early, to begin preparing for his NFL career. He still plans to graduate early, though the course of his life has dramatically changed.

Thanks to his early treatment success, he is cleared to return to school in the fall and receive chemotherapy at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He can lift weights, ride a bike, swim, and play golf, as he has done regularly after his chemo sessions, having avoided the side effects commonly associated with the drugs. But he is barred from running for fear he could break the femur and release any remaining cancer cells.

Doctors have told Herzlich his bone will be further compromised - made more brittle - by the radiation treatments. And though the encouraging MRI results have helped him avoid a surgery that would have required replacing part of his femur with a graft from a cadaver - a procedure that almost certainly would have ended his football career - another form of surgery looms after his treatment regimen ends in November.

The less-traumatic procedure will require placing a metal rod inside Herzlich’s femur as a reinforcement. After a brief recovery, the comeback kid plans to begin training to fulfill his final year of college football eligibility as a graduate student, despite the concerns of his orthopedist and radiologist.

“Obviously, it will be a big red flag for the NFL medical people,’’ Herzlich said of his cancer. “But right now I’m focused on playing for Boston College, which I was meant to do in the first place. Whatever else happens, happens.’’

He said he is prepared for the possibility his comeback bid could fail. But he recently told BC defensive coordinator Bill McGovern’s wife, Colleen, not to worry, that he will return to the field in 2010. He sees himself charging out of the tunnel into BC’s Alumni Stadium in an Eagles uniform, his hair and beard grown back, his cheeks painted black, waving his gold and maroon helmet above his head, healthy and proud.

“Whether it happens or not,’’ Herzlich said, “no one can ever take that image away from me.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.