THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

A healthy step for Herzlich

He is inspirational in uninspired BC win

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 5, 2010

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You know he’s had enough of being Mark Herzlich, cancer victim. All he wants now is to be Mark Herzlich, linebacker supreme.

Last seen in a football uniform on Dec. 31, 2008, Mark Herzlich returned to action at The Heights yesterday older, wiser, and in possession of the sort of life-threatening experience no one ever wishes for.

Twenty months ago, Herzlich had never heard of a rare bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, and surely never dreamed he’d be one of its victims. Large, healthy young men on their way to first-round NFL draft status have no such thoughts.

But life indeed has its strange twists and turns, as Mark Herzlich discovered. As recently as a week ago, he honestly didn’t know when he’d be playing again. He had suffered a setback in the form of a stress fracture in his right foot, and he had yet to participate in a serious practice.

He didn’t put the pads on until Tuesday, which meant he had three legit practices before leading the Boston College Eagles onto the field yesterday in advance of their 38-20 conquest of Weber State.

Nerves were never an issue.

“It was excitement,’’ he declared. “The emotion didn’t stray from playing football. I was a little surprised.’’

BC didn’t need Herzlich to subdue the visitors from Ogden, Utah. The Wildcats were here for a paycheck, a fun little trip for a bunch of Western kids, the majority of whom, I’d be willing to wager, had never been east of the Rockies.

They even got to hear lots of hurricane talk, although they didn’t really experience one. All they knew is that they had signed on to play the Atlantic Coast Conference team from Boston. They didn’t know they’d be assigned the role of bit players in one of college sport’s great human interest dramas of the new century.

No, BC didn’t need Mark Herzlich to be the old Mark Herzlich yesterday, and it’s a good thing, because, come on, how good could he possibly be with so little prep? It’s a tribute to his extraordinary ability and determination that he was able to accomplish anything at all.

“I felt good,’’ he said. “I overran some plays. That was to be expected, not to say I’m going to settle for that.’’

“It worked out from my perspective the way it needed to work out,’’ said coach Frank Spaziani. “He started. He played. We obviously tried to monitor how many plays he had. He was able to go out there, and he did. Obviously, it was a tremendous start, and he’s able to go on.’’

For the record, he was credited with five tackles — three solo and two assisted.

In addition to the 75 or so family members and friends in attendance, there was a very special press box observer named Sister Barbara Anne. Anyone who followed the Herzlich saga during the last 20 months is aware of this Franciscan nun, herself a cancer victim, and how she likes to write letters of encouragement when she learns of new cancer victims.

She had absolutely no idea of Herzlich’s prior level of fame and accomplishment when she wrote him. Now they are legitimate friends, which is all the more fascinating because she lives and works in Mishawaka, Ind., which is to South Bend as Newton is to Boston, and if you have to guess which college football team she roots for, you probably should be reading another part of the paper.

BC director of athletics Gene DeFilippo had promised her that if Mark Herzlich made his target date of Sept. 4, 2010, for his comeback game she would be there. “Flip followed through,’’ Herzlich noted.

“I think the whole message I wanted to convey to him was to stay positive,’’ said Sister Barbara Anne. “I told him to stay positive and always to be open to what God has in store for him.

“Every day, you need to stay positive and look for something good in your life. I think it means so much to have a goal to work for in your life. I’m a little hesitant when I say that, because I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings who doesn’t make it. But I think Mark did that.

“I am so inspired by Mark. I told him, ‘Mark, something good will come from this’ — and it has. Mark had to pay the price, and others have benefited.’’

“It was awesome she got to come here,’’ Herzlich said. “I hope she can come back Oct. 2 to watch us beat her beloved Notre Dame.’’

For that to happen, BC will have to improve in many areas. A win is a win, but Weber State had the ball for 30 more plays (86-56) and Coach Spaz will not lack for talking points when the team gathers to watch the tapes. Kent State should present another test pattern game next week, and then the real season begins when Virginia Tech shows up, followed by the Fighting Irish.

By that time, presumably, the 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year will be performing at something close to his old level, which means he might be keeping up with Luke Kuechly, the linebacking prodigy who became BC’s best defender in Herzlich’s absence.

“It was a step in the right direction,’’ Herzlich said. “I have to take a bigger step in the right direction as we go on. I’m blessed to be able to come back and play. Now I have to do something to help our team win football games.’’

It’s the best individual story in all of college football. Start casting the movie now. Not sure who plays Mark Herzlich yet, but Kathy Bates is a lock for Sister Barbara Anne.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.