NEWTON, Mass. -- For the past year and a half, Mark Herzlich has incessantly talked about running through Alumni Stadium's tunnel for his triumphant return to Boston College's roster. And when No. 94 finally sprints out on Saturday -- Sept. 4, as in 9/4 -- two rows of pediatric cancer patients will be waiting for him.
"It's pretty sweet," said Herzlich, who successfully fought off a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing's sarcoma. "Just make sure they stay far enough to the side so Thomas Claiborne doesn't run over any of them."
Cancer-free since October, Herzlich hasn't shied away from his status as a poster boy, collecting roughly $200,000 for Ewing's sarcoma research. Scores of survivors will be on hand Saturday, and Herzlich's father secured 75 seats for the home opener against Weber State at 1 p.m.
"It will be cool to see everyone," said Herzlich, who had a metal rod inserted in his leg. "To see the kids, what they're going through is where I was at."
Once the game begins, however, the Eagles will have to find a way to come down from that emotional high.
"There's going to be so much energy and emotion surrounding [us], we just gotta keep it under control and keep our minds ready to do what we gotta do," sophomore linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "Everyone's rooting for Mark to get back out there. He's looking forward to getting back out there, too."
But it's unclear exactly how much Herzlich will play and how much he can physically stand. The 2008 ACC defensive player of the year missed training camp with a stress fracture in his right foot. On Tuesday, he put pads on for the first time since Dec. 31, 2008, when the Eagles played Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl.
Herzlich said Tuesday's practice, which fell on his 23rd birthday, was the most enjoyable workout he's had since his diagnosis, even if he woke up stiff the next day.
"It felt sore, it felt good -- good sore," Herzlich said on Wednesday. "Then I realized 'Oh yeah, I'm going to have to practice again in 95-degree heat.' I probably sweated out 10 pounds."
His foot felt fine, too.
"Nothing really hurt it so I stopped thinking about it," he said. "Then, fortunately my lungs started giving way and I realized I haven't run in four months."
Luckily, the linebacker position is one of BC's strong points. Kuechly had a breakout year last season as a true freshman with an eye-popping 158 tackles. The Freshman All-American weakside linebacker in 2009 will play in the middle this year while another highly touted freshman, Kevin Pierre-Louis, was just named the weakside starter.
"Time has never gone so slow before," Pierre-Louis said Wednesday. "I feel as if today should be Thursday. Sooner or later [game] time will come and it should go well."
The linebacking corps is rounded out by returning starter Mike Morrissey, a walk-on who earned a scholarship before his sophomore season. The senior had 37 tackles and three pass breakups last year.
Junior Will Thompson also played a lot in Herzlich's absence while sophomore Nick Clancy saw time in 10 games last year. Once Herzlich is in shape, BC's linebackers could rank among the best in the country.
"The good thing is we have so much depth at linebacker," Herzlich said. "I honestly have no idea how many plays they'll put me in for [Saturday]. To be honest, it could be 80 plays or 10."
No matter how many snaps he takes, the first one will be the most important.
"It's going to be nerves and then excitement, it's going to be everything," Herzlich said. "And once you get that play under your belt, you just get into it."