The Eagles have always been a team that has thrived on veteran leadership. They have always had one player at the forefront, a designated motivator, a player who epitomizes everything the rookies should strive toward. Not too long ago, that player was Matt Ryan, and before him, it was Mathias Kiwanuka.
When Ryan graduated following the 2008 season, Mark Herzlich was the sensible option to step in and fill the void, and for a year — a tough year — he was the face of the team. The Eagles struggled through countless injuries, particularly to quarterback Chris Crane, and somehow emerged atop the ACC's Atlantic Division with a makeshift defense and a rookie quarterback.
Herzlich did his job. He helped a young team through a transition. Then, disaster struck.
Since May 14, 2009, seemingly every BC football storyline has revolved around Herzlich. After the linebacker was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, the team suddenly wasn't so concerned with who would win the quarterback competition or how Frank Spaziani would compare to Jeff Jagodzinski, who was fired months before Herzlich's diagnosis.
The team just wanted to know when it would get its leader back.
BC's 2009 season was different. There was so much change, so much discussion that had little to do with the product on the field, so much distraction. The Eagles had lost their defensive anchor, the linchpin that held the team together, but on top of that, they lost a coach who had led them to two straight ACC championships, and their quarterback had transferred to East Carolina. Everything that had been a strength for the Eagles had seemingly disappeared — veteran leadership, solid defense, heart and soul.
In 2009, there were bright spots. There was a down-to-the-wire home win over Florida State on a rainy day in early October, and there was yet another walloping of longtime head coach Tom O'Brien and his NC State squad, but much of that was overshadowed by debilitating inconsistency. There was the ongoing struggle between rookie quarterbacks Justin Tuggle, who often seemed too young, and Dave Shinskie, who often seemed too old. The defense and offensive line, both perennial strengths of any BC team, were suddenly porous. There was frustration with the Eagles' futility in pressure situations and frustration with their futility against ranked opponents.
But throughout the transition, there was a very necessary distraction that overshadowed it all.
The morning before BC eked out that feel-good win over FSU, Herzlich sat with ESPN's College Gameday crew under a tarp in the quad and announced that he was nearly cancer-free. A few months later, he returned to offseason practice with his teammates and started getting his hair back.
Now, despite the fact that he was initially told he'd be lucky to recover full strength in his leg, never mind return to the football field, Sept. 4 looms as a day that means something. Rarely is a season-opening matinee against Weber State a story. In this case, it is.
Nobody thought it was possible, but just 14 months after his diagnosis, Herzlich will be back on the football field.
"Whatever Mark says he's going to do, he's going to do," linebackers coach Bill McGovern said at the ACC's preseason media day on Sunday. "He's one of those guys you never bet against."
When Herzlich last played in a game that meant something on Dec. 31, 2008, in the Music City Bowl against Vanderbilt, he was a potential first-round draft pick. He had recently been named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and the only thing standing between him and a long career in the NFL was the possibility that sticking around Chestnut Hill for his senior season could bring even bigger and better things.
Now, Herzlich has work to do. When training camp begins on Aug. 8, 2010, he will be a different player than he was on New Year's Eve in 2008. His expectations may remain the same — you'd be hard-pressed to find a more competitive, more driven player in the NCAA — but the road to meeting them is bound to have some unforeseen obstacles.
But the determination is still there. Not even cancer can steal that from Herzlich.
"I don't see any reason why I can't be as good as I was in 2008," Herzlich told the media.
It's hard to keep things in perspective when you're playing NCAA football because it's difficult to focus on anything but Saturday's game. The most important thing is winning each and every week, putting up numbers, keeping your draft stock high, doing everything possible to make sure your team is one of the lucky few to be selected for a BCS bowl in December. Cancer helps put all of that into perspective, but for Herzlich, football is what helped him put his cancer in perspective. For Herzlich, he only had one option: get better so he could get back out on the field.
"I wasn't overly religious before," Herzlich said, "but I began praying every day that I would be cured of cancer and that I could play football again. That's what I love most."
Last year was a transition year for the Eagles. This year, with Herzlich back at the helm, wearing No. 94 on Sept. 4, it's time to transition back to where they left off.