Cancer's a nightmare that can paralyze anyone. You don't have to be on the wrong end of a diagnosis to experience what it means. The closer you are to a diagnosis, the harder it hits, but it can hit anyone. Mostly, cancer means we have no power.
Watching someone get diagnosed with a cancer is like watching someone staring down the barrel of a gun, only you can't intervene. You may not be facing the finality of cancer patients, but you feel just as helpless. All you can do is watch from afar, and hope they live to walk away.
Which brings us to Mark Herzlich.
In 2009, Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. People know that it almost cost him his football career, but they forget it was supposed to take his life.
I was a senior at BC back then, and Mark was a junior. We'd seen each other at parties, had a lot of the same friends, and over the course of his junior year, he'd become one of the best football players in the country, and certainly the biggest celebrity on BC's campus.
The diagnosis hit me with a thud, just like everyone else. I was sitting in my dorm's common room playing NCAA '09 with one of my roommates, when another roommate walked in and told us the news. We spoke in short bursts and hushed tones. What can you say?
Later, we looked up statistics on Ewing's Sarcoma. The prognosis wasn't pretty. From NIH:
Ewing's sarcoma has therefore been considered as a systemic disease necessitating local as well as systemic treatment. ... Despite aggressive treatment, 20-40% of patients with localized disease and almost 80% of patients with metastatic disease at presentation succumb to the illness.
Just a few months earlier, Herzlich had been the ACC Defensive Player of the Year during a year the league had six defensive players go in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. He'd turned down millions of dollars and a guaranteed spot in the first round to come back to school. And now here he was, his football career effectively over, and his life very much in doubt.
I never knew Mark Herzlich that well, but your school's a big part of your identity when you're in college, so the star athletes representing your school take on a bigger meaning whether you know it or not. And once one of those stars is fighting for his life, you can't help but know it.
It hits the whole community. So hearing that Mark Herzlich finally made it to the NFL today, my first thought went back to that afternoon in my common room when we first heard the news.
"Wait, really? He's got cancer?"
"Yeah. Supposedly it's pretty bad, too."
"Will he ever play again?"
"They don't know, but they don't think so."
"Is he gonna live?"
"It's a pretty serious form of cancer."
It was the same fumbled conversation about cancer that happens in living rooms all over the country, every single day. His story seems like a fairy tale now—after all the appearances on College Gameday, the triumphant comeback, the cameo at the ESPYs, and now the NFL contract—but for kids at BC then, it was very much a nightmare. The soon-to-be millionaire was soon-to-be dead.
Since then, Mark's enjoyed a stunning recovery and an even more incredible comeback on the football field, and now he's set to join the New York Giants. He endured countless hours of chemotherapy, and then, with his body still ravaged, started working to get himself back on the field.
The same way we don't understand how or why cancer kills, we'll never really understand how Mark Herzlich beat it. But he did, and where cancer leaves millions of victims helpless each year, now Mark's a walking, talking reason to hope. Cancer doesn't kill everyone. Sometimes life beats death.
For me, though, it's impossible to watch this without thinking back to that first afternoon, when I found out my school's star football player would probably never play football again, and may not even live. Then he lived. And then he somehow played again. And now he's in the NFL.
It just gets more incredible as we go.
Even if things don't work out in the NFL, his story's already as inexplicable as cancer, itself. Ultimately, Herzlich's proof—the prospect of death may leave us numb, but sometimes the power of life leaves us speechless just the same. Because really, at this point, what else can you say?