It had been a long and much-publicized fight with cancer, but Herzlich beat it and was on schedule to returning to the football field.
But on the first day of practice Monday, he stood on the sidelines. And he has done so for the entire week, missing the team’s first five practices.
The BC medical staff discovered a stress fracture in Herzlich’s right foot, which he suffered while training six weeks ago. Until that injury heals, Herzlich will remain unable to practice with his teammates, teased by the prospect of finally hitting someone for the first time in a year and a half.
"It’s frustrating, but I obviously have dealt with much worse than a foot fracture," Herzlich said. "Whatever it is, it’s sidelining me right now. I just need to try to get back. It’s another thing to hurdle."
The 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year may be ready to hurdle it sooner than most think. Initially ruled day to day, Herzlich said that X-rays and MRIs have shown "significant healing."
"Right now it’s kind of wait and see, see how it progresses," Herzlich continued. "There’s no jumping into it too soon, so we are going to be overly cautious with it and make sure it gets fully healed. The last thing we want to do is come back too soon and have it linger throughout the season.
"I’ll be back by the first game, but most likely much sooner."
Though Herzlich cannot physically practice, the senior linebacker is not absent. He has been a noticeable and helpful presence, offering advice where he can. This will be his fifth time through August camp, and his knowledge of the game is benefitting his teammates – and not only on defense.
"Mark is an emotional leader, and even though I’ve never seen him play, at practice, he has been away from the game but he knows everything that’s going on," said quarterback Dave Shinskie. "He’s right there. It’s going to be fun to watch him play."
What most are marveling over is the prospect of teaming Herzlich with sophomore linebacker Luke Kuechly, who finished second in the NCAA with 158 tackles. The public, however, isn’t the only one eager to see what that duo could produce.
"Yeah I’m really excited. I sent a text message to Luke last week and was like, 'I can’t wait to start playing with you.' And he felt the same way. It’s not about competition among each other. All of the linebackers together are working to make the best linebacking corps in the country.
"We have the possibility to be there. We have the talent and motivation, but we’re not refined enough. That will come over the next 20 or so practices."
There’s no question, though, that BC’s group of linebackers suffers a huge hit if Herzlich is unable to play as expected. Fair or not, Herzlich will be asked to be just as good as he was in 2008 – and he knows it. Yet Herzlich, who does not expect a starting position handed to him on a silver platter, understands that there are players who will supplant him if he is not up to the task.
That isn’t going to stop him from believing he still has what it takes.
"There’s no reason to go out there and expect to be terrible, because if I’m not good anymore, I’m not going to play," Herzlich said.
The problem is, Herzlich isn’t playing now, either. But the idea of having him standing on the practice field, only awaiting clearance from a nagging foot injury and not Ewing’s Sarcoma, feels like a dream. The Eagles star linebacker, however, isn’t looking at it that way. In fact, he is right where he expected to be.
"It’s not surreal because it’s something I planned on the whole time," Herzlich said. “From the outside, it probably looks surreal, but to me, that was the plan the whole time. I’m just on course with what I want."
Photo courtesy of Alex Trautwig / The Heights