- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- If linebacker Mark Herzlich were to never play football again, he would continue to be revered at Boston College for the manner in which he faced up to cancer and, if the doctors are right, faced it down.
But if Herzlich were to never play football again, he would be a most unhappy man. Now that he is free of Ewing's sarcoma in his left leg, he is attempting to regain the form that made him the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008.
As he stretched at practice at Alumni Stadium on Tuesday, Herzlich aced the eyeball test. He looks every bit of the 6-foot-4, 238 pounds at which he played two years ago. His hair, which took a vacation during his treatment, has returned in full.
However, nearly all of his teammates wore helmets and shoulder pads. Herzlich wore a T-shirt with a red cross on it. When stretching ended and drills began, Herzlich returned to the weight room to do some upper-body work and ride a stationary bike.
"Today was a little different from what most of the spring was like," he said afterward. "I've been practicing with the team for most of the spring."
Herzlich participated in individual drills and some seven-on-seven work. The coaches trusted Herzlich to tell them what he felt he could do. They drew the line at full contact, which is not to say that Herzlich didn't think he could do it.
"He'll jump into contact stuff and I'll pull him out," head coach Frank Spaziani said. And, as if to explain his stance, Spaziani said, "He's four months removed from them putting a titanium rod in his leg."
"I knew what I wasn't supposed to be doing," Herzlich said. "But I tried to go in there anyways and see if the coach would forget for at least one play. I snuck into a couple of drills. [The contact] felt fine. It didn't bother me. I haven't had pain at all really in my leg. It's just the strength needs to come back fully."
"He's getting more and more comfortable, moving in sync, getting in football position," said defensive coordinator Billy McGovern, who coaches the linebackers. "There are times when he looks good and times when he looks a little awkward."
Though the left leg looks as if Herzlich has restored it to tree-trunk girth, it remains significantly weaker than his right. Scar tissue from the implant surgery has impeded the ability of his leg muscles to grow.
"There was a plateau," Herzlich said. "Basically, it was getting stronger and more flexible. I got to the point where it was getting tough to become more flexible with the stretching. I felt my quad was really tight. When I tried to put my foot to my butt, do a quad stretch, it was just kind of locked."
What did that mean on the football field? It meant he could run fast straight ahead. But if he had to plant that left leg or move laterally, his body did not flow. It is the difference in strength between the left leg and the right.
"You make up for it mentally," Herzlich said. "The other leg kind of makes up for it. That's what I need to get away from, because my right leg has been taking more of the load than the left leg. I just have to make sure they balance out. My right leg feels fine but it's kind of an injury waiting to happen if you keep playing like that and don't address it."
Last week, Herzlich began a regimen of twice-weekly massages to break the scar tissue. Regimen is the appropriate word.
"As fun as massage sounds, it's deep, deep and painful," Herzlich said. "It would feel like if you got a really bad, deep cut, and then someone stuck their thumb in that cut, really far. That's probably what it would feel like. It's basically where I had the incision, digging in hard. The cuts are closed right now, but that's the pain."
That's why Herzlich isn't in practice in the final week of spring ball. He has to recover from the bruising massages, which isn't the oxymoron it appears to be.
Cancer gives you new words. Herzlich learned that chemo port is not a seaside town in Eastern Europe (his port, through which he took chemotherapy, has been closed). Cancer gives you a titanium rod, bolted into both ends of your left femur. And for anyone who thought that viewing one's mortality may change one's attitude about the importance of playing football, cancer gives you a greater drive to succeed, not less.
"I want to get back to where I was, or even better," said Herzlich, who led the Eagles in tackles (110) and interceptions (six) and finished second in tackles for loss (13) in 2008. "Mentally, I guess the drive is more than where it was before. And I guess there are a lot of people who are doubting I can get there." His voice became more urgent.
"When you have people who are doubters, people who think you can't do it, it pushes you even more. You see what people write online, or, you [hear], 'We hope you can make it back.'" Herzlich doesn't like the word "hope."
"It's always good to have hope," he said. "At the same time, it's not like it's just going to happen. I've got to make it happen."
McGovern, the defensive coordinator, takes the long view of a 47-year-old, a husband and father of three daughters.
"It's fun just to see his face in the meetings," he said.
Herzlich, with the myopia of youth, or perhaps merely stubbornness, refuses to see how far he has come. He expects to be at full physical strength by midsummer. And he expects to be on the field when the Eagles open the 2010 season against Weber State on Sept. 4.
"Never bet against that kid," McGovern said.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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