INDIANAPOLIS — Nearly one full year ago, former Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich knelt into a track stance in a corner at Lucas Oil Stadium to get himself set for the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine.
A few seconds later, the slightly winded cancer survivor was informed he posted a time of 4.91 seconds, the slowest of his life. That was about the point when Herzlich started to slide down teams' draft boards.
Once again, the joke's on the doubters.
Herzlich was standing in that identical spot again Tuesday — coincidentally, it was the back-left corner of the Patriots' end zone — wearing his Giants road jersey, answering questions with his team during Super Bowl Media Day.
"I'd say they're pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum," Herzlich said. "It's all smiles."
His journey to this point really hit home with him Monday when the Giants arrived in Indianapolis, and he walked off the plane and across the tarmac. Two years and two months earlier, in November 2009, doctors told him he'd never walk again. Now, the rookie is hoping to be in a full sprint during the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLVI.
Take things back a couple years, and Herzlich kept waking up in the middle of the night in serious pain in his leg, and his doctors couldn't figure it out. At first, he figured it was just a lingering effect from the football season, and then they guessed it was a nerve impingement, or a herniated disc or something else with his spine, but it all turned up negative.
When Herzlich's leg started to badly swell up, they realized something was seriously wrong, and the doctors got more aggressive with the tests. Eventually, they took an MRI that showed a tumor had completely encompassed his left femur, and Herzlich said that was the first time he ever imagined, or realized, it would be cancer.
The cancer was bad, but even worse was the doubt. They immediately ran exhaustive tests to see if the cancer had spread to anywhere else. The doctors told him if it hadn't spread, he had a 60-70 percent chance of surviving. If it had spread, he had a 10 percent chance to live.
"Really, my life was in limbo," Herzlich said.
Fortunately, the cancer had been contained, but the treatment wasn't easy.
"It was tough, and it was depressing," Herzlich said. "And it was depressing for my family, and it was hard on my parents in terms of going to work every day knowing I had to go to chemotherapy."
There was the surgery, too, which served as another low point. Herzlich had a rod inserted into his femur, and that's when the doctor delivered some difficult news.
"At that point, I was told I was never going to walk again," Herzlich said. "I would definitely never be able to run again, and football was out of the question. And then it was determination, and it was support from my family and my friends. I told them the day I was diagnosed. I walked downstairs, and I told my dad, I said, 'Dad, I'm going to make it, and I'm going to play football again.' And if you're a parent and you're told that, he handled it well. He said, 'OK, I believe you. Let's do this together.' And we did it together as a family. We never lost hope."
Herzlich's recovery was miraculous, and the 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year returned to the field to play his final season at Boston College in 2010. Yet, the undesirable showing at the combine put doubt in the minds of NFL personnel departments that Herzlich could ever get back to that high level of play.
Though he didn't get drafted, Herzlich signed with the Giants after the conclusion of the lockout and made the team out of camp. He was primarily a special teams player, but made two starts on defense, where he was making strides before an ankle injury sidelined him for the final five games of the regular season and all three in the playoffs.
Herzlich has been medically cleared to play in the Super Bowl, and now he's just hoping to be one of the 46 players to dress in Sunday's game in front of his parents and brother, who all made the trip to Indianapolis.
Whether or not Herzlich suits up won't impede the gratifying feeling he had Monday on the tarmac, as well as throughout the week as he reflected on his journey. And of course, if his past is any indication, things will continue to keep improving for the guy who has inspired so many with his story.
"And I just thought," Herzlich recalled as he walked off the plane, "'Wow, this is a dream that I never thought would come true.'"
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