Autumn’s official start doesn’t come until Sept. 23, but the signs of a new season are all around. From the comfortable crispness of the air to the sun’s earlier departure every evening, fall is making its first impression.
Even the pumpkins and apple cider donuts are out at New England grocery stores. Get ready — the apple picking and pumpkin carving isn’t far off! I look forward to all of it — autumn is my favorite time of year.
This week, I also got a reminder about my favorite aspect of sports. It’s not the stat lines or the scores. It’s the storylines. The human element.
Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich stopped into our NESN Daily studio Monday afternoon. Of course, Herzlich made what can only be termed a triumphant return to the football field for the BC Eagles on Saturday. He participated in 31 plays and made five tackles, three of them unassisted. The numbers themselves aren’t staggering. Even the expanded box score won’t detail why this win was so significant. It’s the story behind Herzlich’s play that makes it striking.
It had been 21 months since the 23-year-old’s last Eagles game, and the road back to the field wasn’t mapped out, let alone guaranteed. Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer. Physically, he had to go through chemotherapy and then surgery. Mentally and emotionally, he had to battle all the challenges that cancer brings.
I asked Mark about Saturday’s significance — if he had to return to the field to really feel he had beaten cancer. That’s why, he told me, it was so important that he play. Sept. 4 had been on his calendar all along. He didn’t practice until several days prior to the game and had to come back from a stress fracture in his foot, but playing that season opener was of the utmost importance.
After the game, Herzlich told reporters that "the emotion didn’t stray from football." This, despite the many tears of joy around him. Monday, he admitted that running out of the tunnel and leading his teammates onto the field had been emotional. He told me it was like something you fantasize about — only the reality of it was as good, if not better, than the fantasy.
Herzlich is by no means an underdog — he was the 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year — but his comeback adds another dimension, another layer, to an already impressive story. We’ve seen similar plot lines in this region — Jon Lester’s success, Red Sox prospect Ryan Westmoreland’s ongoing effort to return from brain surgery, to name a few — but the heart showcased by all these people is undeniable. That heart is what makes sport so incredible — and at any level. From the professional player right on down to the pee wee just starting out.
It isn’t the box score. It’s the inspiration exhibited by the people who play the game.
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