On Tuesday, among the pomp and pomposity, among the too-tight, look-at-me dresses, among the goofy outfits and the need-to-be-seen moments of desperation that make up Super Bowl Media Day — among all the silly, needy, celebrity-culture markers that marked the buildup to the big game — was something out of place, something almost quaint, something actually incredible.
An honest-to-God miracle.
Forget the woman in the red dress, or the guys dressed as super heroes and other costumes. Forget the silly questions, the rude questions, the ridiculous questions — hell, for just a moment, please, forget even the football questions.
Focus on Mark Herzlich.
The 24-year-old New York Giants linebacker stood surrounded by more media than a player who recorded 12 tackles all season usually would warrant. But that’s what happens when, landing in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI and suddenly overwhelmed by the moment, you tweet this:
“2 yrs ago I was told I might never walk again. Just WALKED off plane in Indy to play in The #SuperBowl. #TakeThatSh*tCancer.”
Take it indeed, cancer. And, for the rest of us, let’s savor it. Because beyond the final score of the game Sunday, or the heroics or lack thereof of Eli Manning and Tom Brady, or the ballooning brilliance of Tom Coughlin or Bill Belichick — beyond any of it — rests the fact Herzlich will play in the Super Bowl despite two years ago being told he likely never would run again, if he survived at all.
The story is all too familiar. A good man finds out he has cancer — in this case Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer — and faces what too many face every day: an early battle with mortality.
Yet the story’s details are all too rare, and wonderful. That man overcomes, turns pain into a weapon, turns his love for a game — how can those who turn their noses down at sports call them silly in this light? — into survival, into thriving, into a testament to the human condition that an actual play in an actual game never can touch.
Herzlich was an All-American college football player at Boston College when the diagnosis came in 2009, but when the doctor slapped the MRI up before him he was just a guy suddenly grappling with whether or not he’d be alive in a few months.
The cancer surrounded his entire left femur. The doctors were clear. If it had spread, which they did not yet know, they were looking at a 10 percent survival rate. If it hadn’t, he was still at only 60 or 70 percent. As for football? That was over.
“I love my doctors,” Herzlich said Tuesday. “I kept the same doctors the whole time and I trusted them. But I knew my doctor knew cancer, but he didn’t know me and he didn’t know what I was capable of. And I did.”
This is what he was capable of: He knew the speed of recovery after survival — if he survived — depended on how active he was. So during chemotherapy, he lifted weights, did cardio, kept himself in shape — he swallowed the sickness and the horror and worked out for a future in football while fighting for a future at all. And at two months, when it was time — really, it was time — to operate and remove that femur, he said no.
“I had the chemo for two months and then I was supposed to have surgery to remove my femur and take out above and below where the tumor was,” he said. “That’s where — I don’t have a percentage but most people do that. I decided that would give me zero shot at ever playing again, so I wanted to go with the — I wouldn’t say more risky because there’s no data, but the path less traveled — and went with radiation, which is not usually done."
“And I’ve had three or four doctors I saw who said they would absolutely not do radiation on me and not put a rod through my femur because the cancer would spread and I would die within six months,” he said. “I had to trust my doctors and go with my gut. I knew in order to actually be the person I wanted to be again I had to be able to do things like run around and play with my kids in the backyard or play football.”
So he took the chance, despite those who should know better saying the chance would kill him in six months. Stupid, you say? Careless? Puts too high a focus on football at the expense of life itself?
I say Mark Herzlich, because he loves football — not the fame or the money or the things that become dust when you face death — but because he loves football itself channeled that love to somehow overcome a disease that takes too many of us too often.
He recovered. He went cancer-free. He gained strength. He went back to football. He went undrafted. He was signed, this past summer, by the Giants. And now here he was Tuesday, standing among the dignitaries and attention seekers and football minds and all-around glory of Super Bowl week glowing with the gift of life.
The man is an inspiration.
“Toughness, grit, determination,” Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said in describing him. “The decisions he made with regard to his disease in terms of wanting to play and get back on the field. Those were not easy decisions for him to make.”
Added offensive lineman Chris Snee: “Tremendous story. It just speaks to the type of guy he is — the courage. Obviously, he has had to put in so much hard work just to gain the strength back. It speaks to what type of guy he is.”
It speaks to why we should celebrate Mark Herzlich on Sunday, regardless of how much he plays, how well he plays or who wins. We are all mortal. We will all face, at some point, the end of our time here.
And in that moment, at least, we would know that a 24-year-old who turned his love for football into a longer, better life, has shown us a more meaningful moment than any football game ever can.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.