Commentary

Herzlich's return something to celebrate

Boston College cancer survivor's biggest fan puts this feel-good story in perspective

Updated: September 5, 2010, 2:05 AM ET
By Justin A. Rice | Special to ESPNBoston.com

CHESTUNUT HILL, Mass. -- Sitting in the Alumni Stadium press box on Saturday afternoon, Sister Barbara Anne Hallman sported a gold Notre Dame wristwatch and a Mark Herzlich button over her heart.

[+] EnlargeMark Herzlich
Michael Tureski/Icon SMIMark Herzlich finished with five tackles in his first game back, but it's not the statistics that were important. Just getting back on the field was impressive enough.

"This is who I'm rooting for," the 75-year-old Franciscan nun from South Bend, Ind. said with a hand covering the button featuring the Boston College linebacker, who returned to the field for the first time Saturday since being diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing's sarcoma.

"I don't remember the last time I missed a [Notre Dame] game," she continued. "It's worth it."

A cancer survivor herself, Hallman wrote to Herzlich two days after he was diagnosed in May 2009. They have remained friends and BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo made good on his promise to fly Hallman to the Eagles' home opener, a 38-20 victory against Weber State in front of 35,168 fans.

"That was my goal," Herzlich said of making Hallman miss her first Notre Dame game in roughly 60 years. "She can catch it right now. I think they're beating Purdue 10-3. It was awesome that she got to come out.

"[DeFillippo] always follows through and he got her out here."

Herzlich, who had a metal rod inserted in his leg last fall after being declared cancer-free, incessantly talked about his goal of finally running through Alumni Stadium's tunnel again -- the timing of which became uncertain when Herzlich suffered hurt his foot before training camp. Last week, Herzlich practice in pads for the first time since the 2008 Music City Bowl.

When No. 94 finally did sprint out of the tunnel on 9/4 -- as in Sept. 4 -- Hallman was at the lip of the tunnel watching.

"He's such a good man," a blurry-eyed Hallman said. "A lot of good has come from Mark having this problem. Mark had to pay the price and the rest of us have been the recipients of his hard work."

Herzlich started Saturday but didn't make a tackle until after BC senior wide receiver Ifeanyi Momah caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Dave Shinskie to put BC up 14-3 with 5:08 left in the opening quarter.

First, Herzlich helped bring down senior wide receiver Mike Phillips on an 8-yard pass for his 250th career tackle. Two players later, he helped tackle senior fullback Zac Eldridge, prompting ESPN commentator Curt Warner to declare: "He hasn't lost anything."

[+] EnlargeSister Barbara Anne Hallman
Photo Courtesy of Sister Barbara Anne HallmanSister Barbara Anne Hallman (left), a rabid Notre Dame fan, wrote to Mark Herzlich two days after he was diagnosed with cancer and the two have been friends ever since.

"I felt good, I overran some plays but that's to be expected," said Herzlich, who played a part-time role and finished with 5 tackles. "It's a step in the right direction but I'm going to have to take bigger steps as we go."

Getting back was the first and biggest step, he said, and now the staircase seems smaller.

And when he was finally back -- through that tunnel -- Hallman settled into her digs for the afternoon in the press box. Weber State was winning 3-0. Shaun McClain's 32-yard field goal came shortly after Shinskie tossed an interception from BC's 19 on the second play of the game.

"It will get better," Hallman said.

Twelve plays later Hallman observed the old rule about cheering in the press box when Shinskie completed a 6-yard TD pass to sophomore tight end Chris Pantale to put the Eagles up four with 3:16 left in the opening quarter.

She had a harder time restraining herself at the end of the quarter when Shinskie hooked up with redshirt freshman wide receiver Johnathan Coleman for a 44-yard pass. The play that set up Montel Harris' 4-yard TD and BC's 21-3 edge.

"It's awful hard to keep quiet," she said.

Hallman will have a tough time deciding who to cheer for on Oct. 2 when the Irish travel here for the Holy War -- a dilemma every reporter lining up to interview her asked about.

Her answer never wavered: "My loyalty to Notre Dame has never been so tested."

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