Mark Herzlich’s professional football career was a longshot from the start. But then, that’s the case for undrafted free agents, afterthought players who slip into the game through a back door. He just stuck around much longer than most.
Herzlich was a star at Boston College, the defensive player of the year in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2008. He had recorded 110 tackles and six interceptions in his junior year at BC.
That is when his football future took the worst hit you can imagine. In January 2009, he experienced some pain and swelling in his left leg and the diagnosis was Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, a cancer that often spreads throughout the body. The word was that Herzlich might lose the leg, that if doctors saved it he would be lucky to walk again. Forget about football. That was out of the question.
But the diagnosis could not understand this young man’s heart, his determination and his refusal to accept a verdict that he would have to give up the sport he loved.
Doctors gave him two choices. Surgery to arrest the cancer spread but would effectively end any chance at football or aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. The odds were frightening. If the cancer had spread, there was a 10 percent chance of survival. Otherwise it was 70 percent.
Herzlich chose the chemo, seven months of grueling treatments, pumping medication into his body to destroy the cancer, 50 doses of radiation to prevent its return. Doctors inserted a titanium rod to strengthen his leg and in 2009, against all odds, Mark Herzlich returned to football. He started all 13 games for BC, recorded 65 tackles and four interceptions.
His medical history made Herzlich a non-prospect as far as the pros were concerned, but not as far as he was concerned. Teams do not spend precious draft choices on longshots like him. They shuttle off to free agent land, drifting from one team’s tryouts to another, hoping for a shot, maybe at the taxi squad. It is the back door but sometimes it works. It did for Herzlich, who earned a shot with the Giants. It was a place on the roster bubble, a nearly guaranteed invitation to see the coach and bring your playbook on cutdown day. That invitation did not come. Herzlich made the team.
He played here, there and everywhere, sometimes at middle linebacker, sometimes at tight end, often on special teams on a Giants team that won the Super Bowl in 2011. He became a leader in the Players Association and played five more seasons but spent 2016 on injured reserve after suffering a neck burner during training camp.
Herzlich was back this season and played four preseason games, recording14 tackles, tied for most on the team, one of just three Giants remaining from that 2011 Super Bowl team along with Eli Manning and Zac DeOssie.
Then, on his 31st birthday, Mark Herzlich got the word most undrafted free agents hear much sooner than he did:
“Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook.’’