By TIM DAHLBERG, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The player on the screen was a 6-foot-4, 246-pound bundle of fury, flying across the field in search of another target to attack. Mark Herzlich watched himself over and over again, slamming into opponents, busting up plays and generally creating havoc for the Boston College defense.
The video he made in a college class kept him going as he sat for hours at a time for the chemotherapy he prayed would make his cancer go away.
He needed it to remember who he had been. He needed it to know he could become that player again.
"You're sitting there and your body just feels drained. You don't want to move," Herzlich said. "But I knew I had to go work out after, go do my cardio if I was going to have a chance. It kept me going."
They told him there was a chance he wouldn't walk again. No way he would play football again.
Now he's a rookie linebacker on the New York Giants, hoping to play in the biggest game of his life.
The rare cancer that almost cost him his leg is gone. The determination and spirit it took to beat it remains.
"I know my doctors know cancer, but they didn't know me," Herzlich said. "Realistically it shouldn't be possible, but somehow, some way, it is possible."
Herzlich desperately wants to play in the Super Bowl, though others might think being here with the Giants is victory enough. He's been recovering from an ankle injury that sidelined him since late November and says he feels great, but is not sure if he will be on the active list for the showdown with the New England Patriots on Sunday.
That didn't stop him from tweeting his joy about being invited here as the Giants arrived in Indianapolis on Monday for Sunday's game.
"2 yrs ago I was told I might never walk again. Just WALKED off plane in Indy to play in The (hash)SuperBowl," he told his 71,000 followers.
For a long time, playing in big games seemed to be Herzlich's destiny. He was a dominating player at Boston College, so good he was chosen ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 after having 110 tackles and six interceptions as a junior.
But he kept getting sharp, stabbing pains in his leg that seemed to come at random, often waking him up in the middle of the night. Doctors finally ordered an MRI and diagnosed him in May 2009 with Ewing's sarcoma, a form of bone cancer that is fatal 30-40 percent of the time — and 90 percent of the time if it spreads to other areas of the body.
The diagnosis hit him hard. He went home and upstairs to his room, where he contemplated a future that suddenly wasn't so bright.
"It was tough, very depressing," Herzlich said. "Cancer was just something that never crossed my mind."
The depression didn't last long. Two hours later, he came down the stairs and told his father that not only was he going to beat the cancer but was going to play football again.
"OK, " Sandy Herzlich said. "Let's do it together."
Doctors wanted to shrink the tumor by chemotherapy, then slice out a 12-inch section of Herzlich's left thigh bone and replace it with a cadaver bone. But that would have ended Herzlich's football career, and may have left him unable to walk again.
He opted for a riskier path, with chemotherapy followed by surgery to insert a titanium rod that runs from his hip to just above his knee. Then came more months of chemo, followed by five weeks of radiation to make sure the cancer was gone.
"To be on crutches for 40 years or be in a wheelchair, that wasn't a life I wanted to live,' Herzlich said. "It was risky, but it was a decision I felt I had to make. I wanted to be able to play with my children, wanted to live a life worth living."
The treatments were a success, and follow-up tests showed the cancer hadn't spread. After missing a year, he came back for a senior season at Boston College that was solid, if not nearly as spectacular as the last season he played before his diagnosis.
The NFL invited him to New York for the draft, though he wasn't a first-round pick. He wasn't picked at all, a slight that bothered Herzlich but made him even more determined to play in the NFL. The Giants — acting on a "suggestion" by co-owner John Mara, a BC graduate — finally signed him to a rookie contract, and he made the opening game roster.
His playing time was limited to special teams before getting a start at middle linebacker against the Eagles in late November. He played well, but injured his ankle the next week and has been out since.
The ankle, he says, is healed. It's now a numbers game to see whether the Giants will activate him for the Super Bowl.
"I can't even imagine what it would feel like," Herzlich said "To even try to put it in words what I will feel doesn't even do it justice."
One thing Herzlich is sure of is he wants to continue to offer hope to others diagnosed with cancer. He's earned his large Twitter following for his positive messages and, just before the Giants left for Indianapolis, called a young woman in Georgia who was about to undergo surgery for a tumor in her leg to offer her some inspiration.
He barely thinks about his own leg anymore, except every four months when he goes for tests to make sure the cancer hasn't returned. So far Herzlich has tested clean, and he's confident that he is truly cancer free.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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