THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Sunday football notes

Herzlich is a source of giant inspiration

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / August 28, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Everyone, especially around here, knows Mark Herzlich’s story, one that continues to inspire.

After a stellar 2008 season at linebacker for Boston College, when he was named an All-American and the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. He returned to the field in 2010, but with a rod inserted in his left leg, Herzlich wasn’t the same player.

He went undrafted last April, and after the NFL lockout was finally lifted, he signed with the New York Giants as a free agent and is battling to make the team.

Through two preseason games, Herzlich is making a name for himself on special teams. As a strong-side linebacker, he hasn’t gotten a ton of playing time except late in games because the Giants, for the first time in a while, are getting good play from their young linebackers. But Herzlich is ninth on the team with four tackles.

Herzlich drew a lot of cheers in a nationally televised game Monday night when, with the Bears at the 4-yard line with 3:18 left, he dropped into a zone, rerouted two crossing receivers, then picked off quarterback Caleb Hanie.

“It was a heck of a play by that kid,’’ said coach Tom Coughlin. “It was one of those dream deals where he jumped up in the air and the quarterback is trying to throw the ball over him.

“It was a goal line situation and Mark makes a heck of a play. I am glad to see that from him.’’

So were the many family and friends on hand to support the Wayne, Pa., native. Herzlich found his father and presented him with the ball. Quite a thrill for the old man, who grew up a diehard Giants fan in West Hartford.

“When I got sick, he basically treated me like everything was normal,’’ said Herzlich, “and that’s something that was very helpful because a lot of people were sending me letters and talking to me, kind of feeling badly for me, and my dad treated me like nothing was wrong. It made me feel very normal when I was around him.

“He was always my biggest fan. He wore his ‘94 BC’ jersey all the time, and painted his face black like I did during the games. He even wore a bald mask when I came back after chemo, just to kind of make light of the situation, which was good. And through the whole process of the draft and everything, he was always right there with me.’’

Also on hand at MetLife Stadium was Herzlich’s girlfriend, Belmont native Danielle Conti. The two have been together since Herzlich was finishing up his chemo treatments at the end of ’09.

“Me and his mom were sitting in the front row because most people had left, and we couldn’t have been happier,’’ said Conti. “For him to even be at the place where he is right now is truly amazing. Being there and watching his entire comeback, it was emotional for me just to be there watching him play in an NFL game.’’

What a lot of people don’t know about Herzlich’s story - which will be featured on “60 Minutes’’ next month - is that he’s soon to be an Army wife of sorts.

After being a mainstay in the Boston College ROTC, Conti will leave in November for three months of training at the Army Adjutant General School at Fort Jackson, S.C. Her unit is currently deployed in Afghanistan - she was still in school at the time - and Conti could be joining them when her training is complete.

“He has been unbelievable about it all, to say the least,’’ Conti said. “He couldn’t be more supportive. He always tells me how proud he is of me that I do this and I want to do this with my life.’’

Though Conti probably won’t be on the front lines - she handles personnel and human resource work - Herzlich called it a “scary’’ situation and a little bit nerve-racking. But he wants her to pursue her dreams, which include going to law school and landing in the Judge Advocate’s General Corp.

“I’m proud of her, I think it’s awesome that she does that,’’ Herzlich said. “I met her and I had no idea she was in the Army. Obviously I found out quickly, but it’s something she loves to do and she’s proud of it. I’m proud of it.

“Many support the Army and the cause, but very few get involved, so the fact that she’s able to do that is amazing.’’

Herzlich said he and agent Tom Condon, a BC alum, picked the Giants from several teams that expressed interest because they thought it was the best opportunity.

“I had to narrow it down quickly,’’ Herzlich said. “I had maybe a day to figure it out. I talked to a couple different coaches, a couple different owners, and it kind of came down to the Ravens, Eagles, and Giants.

“They were all unbelievable organizations with great coaches, great opportunities. I knew the Eagles had drafted a few more linebackers, and the Ravens obviously have a great linebacking corps right now.

“So the Giants, it felt like a place I could compete and I could compete at the special teams level as well. After talking to Coach Coughlin, and getting the feel of the team from him, it just felt like a real great place to be.’’

Those wondering if the hometown Patriots expressed an interest, Herzlich said if they did, it wasn’t relayed to him.

“Yeah, I thought about possibly playing for them,’’ he said. “I obviously love Boston - it was my home for the past five years, and I enjoyed every second of it there.

“It was definitely a place that I had my mind on, but things work out a certain way and that’s just kind of the way it worked out.’’

Herzlich said his speed - his 40-yard time of 4.91 seconds at the combine had a lot to do with him going undrafted - is coming back. As to whether he’s close to being the same player he was before the cancer, Herzlich said he doesn’t think about it in those terms.

“I don’t even remember, really, what my body felt like in 2008 because it was so long ago,’’ he said. “I feel the progress each day little by little.’’

The Giants apparently see it as well.

“This year, he has improved himself back to where he was,’’ Coughlin said. “He is much better than he was a year ago, and if he stays on the track, we are excited about that.’’

That would make a good end for the “60 Minutes’’ piece, and the amazing story of Mark Herzlich - football player, cancer survivor, and soon-to-be Army wife.

“My biggest thing is if I can get an encouraging word of success to people out there who are struggling through something, then that’s what it’s all about,’’ he said. “It’s not about being on TV or anything like that. It’s about people fighting through cancer, or fighting through something in their lives and giving them hope.’’

Whether Herzlich makes the Giants or not, he’s done that already.

IN MEMORY OF MYRA
Kraft touched by donations The Myra Kraft Giving Back Scholarship Fund continues to grow by the day, and that outpouring of support eases, ever so slightly, the pain felt by Patriots owner Robert Kraft over losing his “sweetheart.’’

“It’s unbelievable, this fund will be over $3.5 million by this weekend,’’ Kraft said. “We’ve established a bond with people I’ve never met because, I guess, cancer doesn’t discriminate. Thousands of gifts have been received and I’m answering every one of them, and my son, Josh, is writing letters to everyone.’’

Many of the gifts have been $5 or $10, from people who were touched by Myra Kraft’s life story. And there are others like the young lady who sent $127 in cash - money made from a lemonade stand in front of her house.

“I’m giving $127 away to your fund,’’ her note read. “As small as it is, I hope it will make a difference in someone’s life. It was my summer earnings from my lemonade stand.’’

If that doesn’t tear you up, nothing will.

Kraft has also been touched by many contributions from his friends and the NFL community. That includes two players that surprised even Kraft: Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, and his brother Eli Manning of the Giants. The two - who ended the Patriots’ seasons in 2006 and ’07 - made “substantial donations,’’ according to Kraft.

“We lost our ability to win Super Bowls back-to-back years to Manning brothers, and then to see each of them send very generous checks to this fund . . . and Peyton wrote me a beautiful note,’’ Kraft said.

“They’re sort of two people that broke my heart on the field in back-to-back years, and then they warm my heart with generous donations. It’s something special about this NFL and the great people associated with it.

“It’s sort of the great part of football, the fact that it’s a team sport and you have all these rivalries but they together - with people like Matt Cassel and Junior Seau and Tom Brady and just a ton of guys - have made contributions, dozens of Patriots players, that are going to allow us to keep the spirit of Myra’s giving back to the community live for generations to come.

“And we’re going to do some very interesting things with this, where it’s about volunteerism, and we’re going to honor young people at the Boys and Girls Clubs who volunteer and give back and give them substantial scholarships to college.

“But then we’re also going to set up an emergency fund in these times that we’re in where we’re going to get the support agencies in towns to take serious cases.’’

Kraft was also very touched by the personal appearances made by players after Myra’s death, including Randy Moss.

“He was most appreciative of the time he spent with us,’’ Kraft said. “He told me how much he respected our organization, my family, my wife, and what we’ve created here.

“In his mind, we created something special here and it will always be a very important part of his life. Having him fly up from West Virginia and come here to look me in the eye and say that, that was pretty cool.’’

QB TAKING HITS
Tebow seems to be a target We mentioned it last week, but events demand further comment.

What is with the obsession about Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow? Not among fans - we get that - but people, uh, within the Denver administration?

Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports paid a visit to Dove Valley last week, and he left with some interesting comments about Tebow from “one highly knowledgeable member of the organization.’’

“If everything was totally equal, and this were a competition based only on performance at this camp, Tebow would probably be the fourth-string guy,’’ Silver’s source said. “Kyle [Orton] is far and away the best, and Tebow’s way behind [Brady] Quinn too. And I’m telling you, [undrafted free agent] Adam Weber is flat-out better right now.’’

Then there was this one, concerning Tebow’s ability to navigate a pro-style offense: “Forget about how he delivers the ball, or how accurate it is. First he has to know where to go with it.’’

Holy cow. Those are the types of comments usually used to flog an overpaid player who is complaining and causing problems behind the scenes. It’s usually the last step before said player is cut or traded - or even after he leaves. You know, the Albert Haynesworth treatment.

Tebow doesn’t appear to be in that category, so we checked in with a Broncos source. He said Tebow has done nothing behind the scenes to deserve that kind of treatment.

“Somebody has it out for him,’’ that source said.

Could be. To that, we can say to the new Broncos brought in with coach John Fox: We get it, you didn’t draft Tebow, who everybody but Josh McDaniels knew was going to be a two- to three-year project after playing in a spread offense in which he ran more than he threw. Tebow is not your fault. OK, we get it, move along.

The other, more plausible explanation, is that Silver took comments that were thought to be off the record and put them on the record. That seemed to be the case after Jim Saccomano, the Broncos vice president of public relations, took to Twitter to passive-aggressively take down Silver.

“A serious concern for teams is granting access to outlets that provide incentives to writers based on page clicks,’’ Saccomano wrote, among other comments. “That is a problem.’’

We have no doubt the comments are accurate as to one person’s thinking within the organization. It is not usual for people within an organization to disagree on a player’s chances.

But shame on the source for not realizing he was talking to a journalist who may use those comments. And shame on the source for slamming a player who is trying to get better in his second year after having the benefit of no offseason workouts.

Is Tebow that much of an albatross? If he is, then trade or cut him. You already have the bashing part down, might as well follow through and get it over with.

ETC.
The view from the Outsiders The 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac, the annual must-have guide from the Boston-bred crew at footballoutsiders.com, is available from their website or amazon.com.

They have the Patriots projected at 11.5 wins against the league’s fourth-toughest schedule.

A few of the many tidbits on the Patriots:

■They went with two tight ends on 57 percent of snaps last year. No other offense was above 40 percent. In 2009, before drafting Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots used two tight ends on 34 percent of plays.

■ Although they used to be known as a screen team, the Patriots ran just a dozen screen passes to running backs last season, 30th in the NFL.

■ As great as the offense was, it still went three-and-out on 21.5 percent of drives, only 13th in the NFL.

Jerod Mayo was the only defender in the NFL to be involved in more than 20 percent of his team’s total tackles (including assists).

■ Patriots running backs were stuffed for a loss or no gain on just 12 percent of carries, second in the league. They haven’t ranked worse than third in the league in this stat since 2007.

Short yardage Browns running back Montario Hardesty, a second-round pick in 2010 who looked to be one of the breakout stars before tearing his left ACL in his first preseason, returned against the Eagles and had 15 yards rushing on five carries in his first action since the injury . . . The Bills are really beat up. Linebacker Reggie Torbor, who started seven games last season, recently was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Receivers Roscoe Parrish (left calf), Donald Jones (head), and Naaman Roosevelt (right ankle), and linebackers Arthur Moats (leg) and Chris Kelsay (eye surgery) also are injured. To make matters worse, Buffalo’s first-round pick, defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, was seen using crutches . . . The Texans could finally be for real if Wade Phillips can install his 3-4 scheme quickly. Like Mario Williams, Connor Barwin is moving to outside linebacker. “Overall, it’s been good,’’ Barwin said. “I was excited about the change, and after doing it throughout training camp, I’m still happy about making the change.’’ . . . Saints running back Darren Sproles said his new team “works a little bit harder’’ in training camp than his former team. And people wonder why the Chargers get off to slow starts every year.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

Patriots Video