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Posted: Wednesday July 29, 2009 11:38AM; Updated: Friday September 25, 2009 4:47PM
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Herzlich battling toughest opponent: cancer (cont.)

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Herzlich (back right) has received constant support from friends and family.
Courtesy of Barbara Herzlich

If he chose to leave football he had options. He could hit a tennis ball since he was 2-and-a-half, and his mother, who was inducted into Wesleyan University's inaugural athletics hall of fame alongside New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and legendary marathon runner Bill Rodgers, says he was "freaky" since birth.

Football wasn't always a perfect fit. In the second grade he was a 95-pound lineman. The next year he was too big to play with his age group. To suit up he would have to face boys two years older. No, his mother insisted. He would play soccer instead. The next year he played football in an unweighted league, 45 minutes from home.

Herzlich's route to success in lacrosse was much shorter. Growing up, both parents had run a local league, and he proved unique in size and skill set. He established a new Conestoga High freshman scoring record, and then he returned to the football field the following fall. When a starter was injured, Herzlich wound up defensive player of the year. His size was now his greatest weapon.

Doors seemed to blow open for him, but Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia shut the one he most wanted to enter. His talents in football and lacrosse drew him to the Cavaliers, who won the national title in lacrosse in 2003, but Starsia did not offer the 100-mph shooter a scholarship. Powerhouse Johns Hopkins did. "Can you imagine that body running down the field as an attack?" Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "I saw a big, strong, athletic kid that our game really didn't have."

By the time Pietramala drove up from Baltimore to watch a Conestoga football game Herzlich's junior year, he felt he had a chance to land him. On the way out, he thought differently. "I looked back in the rearview mirror that night, saw all the fans and attention and knew he would go for football," the two-time national champion coach said.

Virginia coach Al Groh offered a scholarship, and Herzlich committed the June before his senior year. Interest seemed to wane on the Cavs' part, though, in the months that followed, and Herzlich reconnected with BC recruiting coordinator Jason Swepson when he phoned him on a fall evening. Swepson asked head coach Tom O'Brien if he was still interested in Herzlich. He was, and Swepson told Herzlich he needed to tell Virginia he had changed his mind before BC would go any further. Herzlich had one request. "Can you recruit me as a linebacker?" he asked.

"Absolutely," Swepson said.

He reversed his commitment shortly thereafter, citing comfort with the BC coaching staff as a main reason.

His courters were soon the ones telling Herzlich to shed weight. He weighed 257 pounds when he visited BC during spring workouts his senior year. "If you're not able to run up here, we're tipping you over," McGovern said.

The scales were balanced back home. Pick-up basketball games in the sun were therapeutic. Lifting sessions sculpted his 6-foot-4 frame, and he showed up at BC in August 2006 weighing 233 pounds with eight-percent body fat. His mental capacities were even sharper, and he digested assignments quickly. He played in all 13 games, starting twice. "Even on special teams he had this undeniable will," defensive end Alex Albright said.

Competition wasn't restricted to the practice field. On summer nights, when little else happened on campus, Albright, Herzlich and Boek would ask a security guard to leave open a gate into Alumni Stadium. To avoid going stir crazy holed up in their dorm rooms, the three would play endless games of hide-and-go-seek. Cell phones were put on silent. Alliances were made. "It took Mark an hour and a half to find us," Boek said.

What Herzlich found in Boek was a friend for trying times. Boek began his career at Idaho State but transferred to American River Junior College near his home in Fair Oaks, Calif., when his father, Nathan, was diagnosed with stage-four testicular cancer. After a year watching his father improve, he gained interest from BC and moved in with Herzlich. "He's stolen my playbook a few times and memorized our plays," said Boek, who dressed up as Herzlich for Halloween, replete with an eyeblack mask and a marker-dotted beard.

There were games last season when it seemed Herzlich had perused opponents' playbooks. After Herzlich broke up three passes against Notre Dame in October, McGovern challenged him to not only get his hands on passes, but also to haul them in for turnovers. "It was meant to be like, 'Hey, go jump over a bridge,'" McGovern said.

Two weeks later the linebacker nabbed two interceptions against Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner, returning one for a touchdown. He finished the season as the nation's interceptions leader for linebackers with six. "Nothing's out of his range," BC linebacker Brian Toal said. "He catches balls out of the jug machine with one hand."

Draftniks deemed him ready for the NFL, but the kid who dressed up as the wrestler Randy "The Macho Man" Savage in tight red shorts last Halloween and double majored in finance and marketing wanted to stay in college. In a matter of days the family went from fielding calls from inquiring NFL agents to choosing doctors. "It was always going to be there next year," he said of the draft. "The tumor would have turned up. I can't imagine a life without football now."

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