Herzlich battles back for Eagles

Forget about football. This was about life.

When Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich learned 16 months ago he had Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer in his left leg, the football field had to seem a long way away.

Coming off an All-America season, Herzlich was closer to death than he was to making another tackle. The question of whether he'd ever play again was replaced by the question of whether he'd live to see his 24th birthday.

But after several rounds of chemotherapy and the insertion of a titanium rod in his left leg, he has now been declared by his doctors to be cancer-free.

He still has had to play his way back into the lineup for the Eagles after a year away from the game, but just witnessing his effort this far has been inspiring to his teammates and coaches.

"The depths that he was at and [how] he's dug himself out of to get to this point, just the fact that if he can get back, what a tremendous story it would be for him," Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said. "Certainly, we would be the beneficiaries also. It's exhilarating, in that respect. You have a realistic view of just how difficult it may be in the unknown. What has chemotherapy and radiation done to his body in the past year?"

The unknowns are certainly out there, enhanced by the fact that Ewing's sarcoma is so unusual that it occurs in just 1 out of 600,000 people. That has made it difficult to impossible to find a precedent for an athlete returning to the field of play after being diagnosed, much less returning to a game as violent as football.

The 2008 ACC defensive player of the year has been determined to do just that, working with weights and swimming regularly even as he continued chemotherapy treatments. He has maintained his playing weight at 238 pounds and hopes he can be back on the field when the Eagles open their season Saturday against Weber State.

"Once it comes down to all the things that can be taken away from you, that's when I realized I wanted football to be a part of my life," Herzlich said during the team's media day last month. "But I'm not going to settle for, ‘OK, I got back on the field.' I'm going to push myself to get better and be the best I can."

Herzlich's comeback has been sidetracked by a broken foot early in training camp that kept him from full-speed workouts. After what he's been through, it seems a mere bone break would be negotiable.

"Obviously," he said, "I've dealt with a lot worse than a foot fracture."

Watching his ordeal has helped give the rest of BC's players a different look at themselves. It's given them a chance to learn about sacrifice and perseverance. Those are two words often preached by coaches to the team, but seeing them personified brings it home all the more.

"You get things in a different perspective," Spaziani said. "You understand that this might be tough, but look what this guy's doing. It's a validation in the human spirit, the strength that somebody can come up with. We just happen to be close to this."

That's allowed them to watch every step of the way, from Herzlich's shocking diagnosis to his return to the team this summer. Teammates who had never heard of Ewing's sarcoma two years ago are now championing a cause to raise money to help find a cure for the disease that could have taken the life of their star player.

Whether he's an All-American again, a starter or even plays at all this season may not even be the point at this stage. His experience has helped teach them all the tough lesson: It's not about football. It's about life.