What It Takes: Fighting For My Life and My Love of the Gameby Mark Herzlich
In 2011, he became starting linebacker for the New York Giants and triumphed in the Super Bowl—after being told his cancer diagnosis meant he would never play football again....
As a child, Herzlich found an inspiring and grounding force in football, eventually turning his passion into a first-team All-American spot at Boston College. But/i>
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In 2011, he became starting linebacker for the New York Giants and triumphed in the Super Bowl—after being told his cancer diagnosis meant he would never play football again....
As a child, Herzlich found an inspiring and grounding force in football, eventually turning his passion into a first-team All-American spot at Boston College. But after being named the conference’s top defensive player his junior season, the budding star was sidelined by a persistent, debilitating pain in his left leg.
After months of tests, Herzlich received a shocking diagnosis: He had Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Doctors put his odds of survival as low as fifteen percent—and no one thought he would be able to run, much less play, again. Then Herzlich learned of a radical alternative treatment that would give him the best chance to regain his strength and maybe even play football again. He had a choice to make, one that would allow him the chance to return to the game he loved, but it came at the risk of his life.
Herzlich relied on family, friends, faith, and deep wells of determination to help him through treatment, and his drastic plan worked. Not only could he run, but he was stronger than ever physically, and mentally ready to battle his way to a spot on an NFL roster. When he was passed over by all 32 teams in the draft, he dug deeper and continued his training, winning a spot in the Giants’ training camp, and eventually, on the team.
Mark Herzlich fought a battle against cancer, against statistics, and some days against himself. Told with candor and raw emotion, this is a story for anyone who has ever fought to beat the odds, for anyone who has ever been told that what they are about to attempt is next to impossible.
Herzlich’s story embodies powerful lessons about what can be achieved through persistence and belief, and he serves as living proof that overcoming the impossible is only the beginning.
With a foreword by New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin
Herzlich was a promising college linebacker who nearly died from bone cancer but fought back to claim eventually a starting position with the New York Giants. While the author clearly loves the game, this book is more about facing a life-or-death obstacle and fighting it. Herzlich emphasizes that the fight is the victory, no matter what the outcome, and urges readers to have hope, fight hard, be a warrior, and believe in themselves. VERDICT This well-written, inspirational story will find popularity with a general audience.
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Read an Excerpt
As a head football coach in the NFL I’ve been around a lot of tough men. You don’t make it to the NFL, and you certainly don’t last, unless you’re exceptionally tough. Mark Herzlich, whom I’ve had the privilege of coaching on the New York Giants, is one of the toughest men I know.
I was well aware of Mark’s many accomplishments long before he joined the Giants. I used to be head coach at Boston College, and though I left before Mark got there, I kept track of the team and I heard a lot about number 94. Mark was a tremendous football player for the Eagles, a first-team All-American and the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. He was highly regarded by everyone in the Boston College community, and his future seemed limitless.
But in 2009 Mark’s life took a drastic turn. He learned he had an extremely rare bone disease, and he was told he’d never play football again. For a time his survival was not a sure thing. For someone like Mark—so young, so strong, so full of promise—it was a staggering blow. Doctors recommended a surgery that would end Mark’s football career, just as he was discovering how good he really was.
Mark had other ideas. Despite what doctors told him, Mark truly believed he would play football again, so he made some very difficult decisions about his treatment. He didn’t take the safe road; he went with the riskier, harder course of action. And even while he was undergoing weeks of grueling treatment, he would often hit the weight room to stay strong for his eventual return to the field. Mark never lost sight of his goal, and he never stopped pushing himself past the limits other people set for him.
It is a testament to Mark’s belief in himself and his strength of character that he made the decisions he made and fought as hard as he did.
There would be other setbacks for Mark. Even after he somehow made it back to the football field, he wasn’t selected in the NFL draft. That was when the New York Giants entered the picture. At the urging of our team president, John Mara—like Mark, a Boston College alum—I met with our general manager, Jerry Reese, and discussed the possibility of giving Mark a chance to play for the Giants. There are only a few open spots in any training camp and dozens of good players waiting to take them. But the vote on the Giants was unanimous—we were all in favor of giving Mark a shot.
After that he faced another obstacle—the NFL lockout. Because of the lockout, our training camp was condensed, and we never had a chance to work with Mark in the off-season. The first time we saw him was when he showed up at camp. We had questions about Mark’s physical condition, and we were eager to see him play. Because of everything he went through, we were even prepared to give him a little leeway.
Yet Mark never gave any indication he needed any leeway. Quite the opposite: Mark was relentless.
He wasn’t far removed from his treatments, and he had to deal with other physical setbacks along the way. But it was clear Mark worked extremely hard to get himself into NFL shape. It was clear he didn’t just want to play again—he wanted to play at the highest level. In that first training camp Mark’s endurance was unbelievable. I am still in awe of that. If it was ninety-five degrees and unbearably humid, Mark was still out there, pushing himself harder and harder every practice, every day.
Mark faced extraordinary adversity and answered it with an extraordinary show of will, faith, and strength. On the field Mark personified toughness.
But that is only half the story. In 1996 I created the Jay Fund Foundation, which provides financial, emotional, and practical support to families of children stricken with cancer. Each spring, the Jay Fund hosts a fund-raising dinner and golf classic. Mark is on the Jay Fund advisory board, and he has become one of the stars of our annual event. It is quite a thing to see how the children respond to Mark. The kids cling to him, drawn in by his big heart and his openness. And Mark doesn’t just spend time with them—he becomes a friend. Mark stays in touch with some of the kids who most desperately need companionship as they fight their own battles to survive.
That positive, never-say-no attitude is something I see in Mark with each play on the field and each interaction off it. What he’s been able to accomplish in football, and how he has used that platform to provide hope and inspiration to kids and families everywhere, is truly remarkable. Mark is a giver. He gives of himself tirelessly, and if you ask him to do something to help other people, he will never refuse.
One of the jobs of a head coach is to evaluate skill and talent. But it’s just as important to evaluate a player’s character. With Mark, that part was easy. He is clearly a man of great courage and compassion—a man whose bravery and achievements make him a hero to children and grown-ups alike.
I truly believe Mark’s story will motivate and inspire anyone who reads it, and that is why I am proud to introduce him to you. I have coached football for almost forty-five years now, and there are few players I admire as much as Mark Herzlich.
Let me tell you what it feels like to hit someone.
First of all, it’s silent. Or at least it is for me. I don’t hear the sound of bodies colliding, the rumbling thunder of impact. The first sound I hear is the deep thud of my opponent’s body hitting the ground, followed by gasps as he struggles for air. Maybe it’s the adrenaline that blocks out the sound, or maybe it’s my euphoria at delivering the hit. Either way, it’s silent.
A good hit is also strangely effortless. If I do it right it feels like the man I’m hitting evaporates into me. There is no resistance, only the purity of my own movement and momentum. Many of the guys I hit stand three or four inches taller and outweigh me by twenty to fifty pounds, but none of that matters. A perfect hit absorbs the extra mass and feels like nothing at all. Like the time I drove my right shoulder into the chest plate of a three-hundred-pound tight end so perfectly flush, his arms flailed forward and his head snapped back, his helmet unbuckled and sailed into the air, his body recoiled like a crash-test dummy, and his feet were the last things to hit the turf.
And I didn’t hear or feel a thing until it was all over.
For much of my life I’ve been a football player. My position: linebacker. Physically devastating another man’s body is my job description. It is also something I truly love doing. To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ever felt guilty about inflicting pain on a football field.
I understand football is a violent sport, and I’m aware of all the research into the damage high-speed collisions can cause the brain and body. I firmly believe we should do everything possible to make football a safer sport on every level. But when I step between the white lines, my view of the world is filtered through the steel mesh of my face mask, which blocks out everything except the bodies I need to displace in order to get to my endpoint: the ball carrier. There is no room for regret or caution or apology on a football field. As a player I’ve entered into a covenant not to resist pain and damage, but to overcome it. My opponents have entered into the same agreement. We all operate under the same code.
Believe me, I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of brutal, bone-crunching hits—hits that temporarily flattened my lungs and scrambled my brain and sent tremors of pain radiating through my body. And after each one, I’ve risen up from the hard ground and walked off the pain. It’s a point of pride to get right back up after a big hit. That’s because a football player is not conditioned for self-preservation. He is not taught to protect his body. A football player is trained to surrender his body to the game, to hurl it at brick walls of bone and muscle again and again and again. In football, your body becomes your weapon. Your strength becomes your faith. Your toughness becomes your salvation.
Now let me tell you about the hit that took all that away from me.
The hit that left me fighting for my life.
It didn’t happen on a football field. It happened in a small room with an examination table, two chairs, a window, and a metal light box mounted on the wall. My mother, Barb, sat in a chair, while my father, Sandy, stood by the window, staring out absently. I sat on the exam table, waiting.
On that day in 2009 I was a star football player at Boston College. I was a first-team All-American. I was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and I was a finalist for the Butkus Award for the nation’s top linebacker. I was six-foot-four, two hundred forty-eight pounds, and in peak physical condition. On almost every day I played or practiced football, and at night I dreamed about it, and in the mornings I woke up desperate to play it again. My life was football and my future was football, and nothing else. I was projected to be a top-ten pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
Four doctors in white lab coats came into the small exam room. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew four doctors couldn’t be good. One of them took two MRI results and jammed them in the top of the light box, then turned it on. Images of the two longest bones in my body—my left femur, or thighbone, and my right femur—were lit up. But the two bones looked completely different. It was as if they came from different bodies, or even different species. I knew that couldn’t be good, either.
The doctor got right to it. He explained that I almost certainly had an extremely rare disease that affects fewer than two out of every million people in the world. Only two hundred and fifty or so cases of the disease are reported each year. Depending on further tests, my chances of surviving the disease could be as low as ten percent.
The news blindsided me. I felt an instant rush of heat through my body, and before I knew it my hands and neck and forehead were sweating. I felt a strange weightlessness, like when you’re leaning back in a chair and it’s about to tip over. I felt dizzy and distant and disconnected from everything.
“Mark is a very good football player,” were the next words I understood, coming from my father. “He was hoping to make a career of it. When will he be able to play football again?”
The doctor’s startled look snapped me back to consciousness. He explained that if I survived—if I survived—the damage from the disease and the treatment would leave me “unable to participate in physical activity.”
“What do you mean, ‘physical activity’?” I heard my mother ask.
The doctor hesitated for just the slightest second.
Then he said, “Mark will never be able to play football again.”
Just like that, it was over.
I was twenty-one years old.
The story I’m about to tell is not really a football story, though there’s lots of football in it. And it isn’t a medical story, either, though the diagnosis I received is the reason I wrote this book. To me this isn’t really even a story, in the way it is to others. To me, this is my life. It’s made of flesh and blood.
Mostly, this book is about something we all have to do at some point in our lives—face a terrifying obstacle and find out how tough we are. Face our deepest fears and find our strongest faith. Face a troubling enemy, and find our true identity. Reach deep to find what it takes to fight for your life.
I grew up in a middle-class town in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Valley Forge, where George Washington made camp during the Revolutionary War. I had what you would call a white-picket-fence childhood, with two loving parents and a younger brother, Brad, and a big backyard, where Brad and I pretended to be big stars like Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk. But I had only one true sports hero—my father, Sandon Mark Herzlich Sr. My full name is actually Sandon Mark Herzlich Jr., so right from the start we had a special bond. My dad wasn’t a professional athlete, but he was strong and fit. He played lacrosse on a local club team, and I loved going to see him play. In fact, my earliest and most vivid memory of him is my mother pointing him out to me on a lacrosse field.
“He’s right over there, Marky. Can you see him?” she said, holding me up in the air. “Wave hello to Daddy.”
The man I saw waving back at me had huge biceps and defined legs. His face was hidden behind a shiny helmet, and he carried a gleaming metal lacrosse stick, like he was some kind of a warrior, which I guess he was. And when he ran off and started playing, he was fast and strong and powerful—to my young eyes like the Hulk and Superman rolled into one. He was the epitome of a pop culture icon—the rugged manly man. On the field that day, I got my first inkling of what I believed it meant to be a man.
It meant being just like my dad.
My dreams were shaped on that lacrosse field and many other fields like it, and ever since I can remember I wanted to be an athlete just like my father. And through hard work and tireless devotion I put myself on a path to achieving that dream. But then came the diagnosis, and everything I’d believed in—everything I’d thought to be true—came crumbling down.
I thought I was indestructible. I learned none of us is.
I thought life was something I could control if I worked hard enough. I learned it wasn’t.
I thought I knew what it meant to be tough. I learned I didn’t.
This is a story about everything I learned once I realized I didn’t know anything.
The reason I wrote this book is because I believe there is something in my story that speaks to all of us. Adversity is a great equalizer, and illness doesn’t care who you are. We all face challenges, some not so important, some life-or-death. We’re all eventually on the receiving end of a hit—a knocked-down, laid-out, brought-to-our-knees, bruised and bloodied hit.
And when that happens—when we wind up in the darkest, loneliest place we’ve ever been, facing the fight of our lives—we’re forced to ask ourselves, “What am I going to do now? Am I going to fight this thing? Am I going to beat it? Am I tough enough to beat it?
“Do I have what it takes?”
What I discovered, and what we can all discover, is that we’re capable of so much more than we ever dreamed. We’re stronger than we ever imagined.
We’re tougher than we ever could have known.
My own journey took me to unexpected places and rocked my mind and heart and soul. It altered the way I look at life and it altered the arc of my dreams. The people I met along the way—the doctors, nurses, new friends and supporters—changed me to my very core.
What I’m about to describe to you wasn’t just a detour in the journey of my life—it was the event that taught me what that journey is all about.
And at the end of it all, there is another unforgettable moment that happened on a sports field—a moment so surprising and logic-defying, I’d hardly believe it if it hadn’t happened to me.
My illness changed me in other ways, too. It brought me closer to my extraordinary family—and without my family I don’t know where I’d be. It brought me closer to my friends, and it brought me closer to God. It was only after I got sick that I was able to pray and speak to God and walk through the door He opened for me at birth. It was only then that I walked with Him through the valley of the shadow of death.
And it was only after I’d lost all my physical strength and toughness, and was left feeling less like a man than ever before, that an amazing woman came into my life and taught me what it truly means to be a man.
Because, you see, I also thought I knew what it meant to be in love, and to have someone love you. But I didn’t.
Finally, and perhaps more than anything else, my story is about the blessings we sometimes take for granted in our lives. Because sometimes it’s only in hardship that we discover how truly blessed we are.
When I was in the darkest stretch of my fight I received a lot of letters from other people going through their own hard battles. Many of those letters came from kids. One of them was from an eight-year-old boy named Logan.
Logan sent me two photos of himself—one that showed him with no hair and pale skin, and one that showed him in a football uniform, running on a field with a full head of tousled brown hair, a determined look on his face.
In his jangly script, he wrote:
I have leukemia. I know what you’re going through. I just want to tell you, never give up and always be positive. I know it is tough but you’re tougher and you will win this fight.
P.S. I’m in remission. I lost my hair but now I have lots of it.
I haven’t been able to write back to every Logan out there who sent me a letter, so this book is my way of doing so now. This book is the letter I have wanted to write to hundreds of students, children, patients, teachers, moms, dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, doctors and nurses, fans and friends—all of whom have touched my life in remarkable ways.
I hope what you’re about to read gives you even a fraction of the strength and inspiration and hope their letters gave me.
In my life there is before and there is after, and that divide started with pain.
It was right after the New Year—a time for dreaming and looking ahead—and I was home from Boston College for winter break. At the time my mother was coaching squash in our hometown of Wayne, Pennsylvania, and I challenged her to a game. My mother, like my father, was an athlete. She had played squash, field hockey, and lacrosse at Wesleyan University, and had eventually been inducted into the school’s inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame, alongside football coach Bill Belichick and marathoner Bill Rodgers. She was a sophomore when she played lacrosse for the first time ever, and by the end of her senior year, she was playing for the national team. My mother was fast and aggressive, and she had unbelievable eye-hand coordination, and on the squash court, I was technically no match for her.
Even so, I was determined to beat her. And in sports, determination can go a long way. We got on the court and my mom put the tiny black squash ball wherever she wanted—high, low, deep, shallow, everywhere. All I could do was chase down every shot and wait until she made a mistake, which I happily did. I still had a chance to beat her when I lunged for one of her perfectly placed shots.
As I lunged I felt a sharp pain in my left leg.
Pain, I have come to learn, is a deeply personal thing. The only one in the world who can feel it is you. No one knows how much you hurt, and no one can ever know. You can share your thoughts with others, and you can share your joy and happiness. But you cannot share your pain. It is yours and yours alone, and your relationship with your pain may be the most personal relationship you ever have.
As a football player, I was no stranger to pain. By then I’d probably played in a couple hundred football games in youth leagues and high school and college, and I’d been banged up in all sorts of ways. Twisted ankles, broken bones, mangled fingers, you name it. And over the years I’d learned that in football, pain is something you play through. Pain is something you endure. You don’t allow pain to take you off the football field. You don’t complain about your pain or use it as an excuse. In football you swallow your pain and you play as if you’re not in pain at all.
In my freshman year at Boston College, one of my teammates, Brian—who happened to be the Big East Rookie of the Year and a top NFL prospect—made the mistake of telling a reporter about his pain. He explained that he’d been playing at less than a hundred percent strength, and that the team’s trainers made him go out and play anyway, and that was why he needed shoulder surgery in the off-season. The day his quotes appeared in the newspaper, our head coach, Tom O’Brien, huddled us together for a team meeting on our practice field.
“You all know how I feel about the media,” Coach O’Brien said to start things off. “Don’t tell the press anything. Not your opinions, not your injuries, not your feelings or philosophical observations. Nothing.”
Then Coach picked up a copy of the newspaper and said, “Brian, stand up.”
Brian did as he was told.
“You told a reporter you weren’t feeling a hundred percent,” Coach said, his face turning red. He pointed to the team’s defensive line coach, Keith Willis, who had played in the NFL for several years. “Keith, were you ever feeling a hundred percent when you played in the NFL?” Coach hollered.
“No, sir,” Keith said.
“Bill!” Coach continued, pointing to our linebacker coach. “Have you ever played at a hundred percent?”
“No, sir,” Bill said.
Coach O’Brien went around the room and asked the same question of every coach there. Big, tough, strong, hard men. And every one of them said the same thing: “No, sir.”
Then Coach turned to Brian.
“How the hell could you ever be a hundred percent before the last game of the season?” he screamed, his eyes bulging and his veins popping. “Don’t ever blame trainers for your bumps and bruises!”
I sat there, stunned. I was just a freshman, and I was shocked to see a player as good as Brian publicly shamed that way. After that, I never complained about any of my injuries. I learned to play through them. The culture of football demands that you deal with pain like you deal with any other minor annoyance—you block it out of your mind so you can go out and play the game.
So when I felt the sharp, unusual pain on the squash court, I really didn’t think much of it. It bounced right off the imaginary wall I’d built around the pain center of my brain. It felt like something pinching on the inside of my left knee, almost like I’d banged it against a helmet during a tackle. It just didn’t feel like anything major. But when I told my mother about it, she immediately shut me down.
“Let’s take a break,” she said. “You just finished a whole season of football.”
Reluctantly, I left the court without finishing the game. The next day I felt better and I asked my mother for a rematch.
“We’d better not,” she said. My mother was determined to protect me from myself. She knew I was so headstrong, I’d play through the pain, and she didn’t want me hurting myself any further.
“C’mom, Mom, just one more game,” I pleaded. “I’ve got to end on a good note.”
“No way, mister. Not gonna happen.”
My mom took me to my favorite lunch spot, Nudy’s, instead. I ordered my usual, the bacon-ranch fajita wrap, and decided to take my mom’s advice: I rested my knee for the remainder of my winter break, and when I didn’t feel the sharp pain again, I wrote it off as a onetime thing. When I returned to Boston College for winter conditioning drills, I told the team’s medical staff about the pain I’d felt, but assured them it had gone away. Telling a trainer about your pain is different from complaining—you want them to know how you feel so they can have a record of your injuries and adjust your workload. The goal is always to be ready for game day, and telling your trainer about any pain is the responsible thing to do. A couple of medical staffers looked over my knee and listened to my assurance that it was no big deal.
They agreed and gave me the thumbs-up to practice and play.
My first winter workout began with six eighty-yard sprints. The players formed a straight row along the goal line of our domed practice field, the really big guys on the left, the not-quite-as-big guys in the middle, and the smaller skill guys on the right. I was in the middle with the linebackers, fullbacks, and tight ends. My group had to run each sprint in under ten seconds, with a forty-five-second rest in between. I dug my right toe into the turf as I loaded up on my left leg, and when the whistle blew I ran the first sprint pretty easily. I knocked off the second and third sprints with no problem, either.
For the fourth sprint, I cocked my left hand back over my head as my right hand touched the turf to stabilize my torso. I wound my body into a coil of potential energy. At the whistle my muscles tensed and fired. My left arm swung out in front of my body, propelling me forward. My right knee shot up toward my face. Finally, my left leg straightened, launching me.
And that was when I screamed.
I felt a fiery pain in the same spot I’d felt it on the squash court. Even so, I kept running and finished the sprint. I went ahead with the fifth and sixth sprints, too, but instead of pushing off hard at the start I began slowly and built up speed after forty yards or so. I wasn’t about to bow out of the first practice of the year, pain or no pain. I told myself I was just clearing away the cobwebs of the winter break.
But after the sprint drill, the pain was still there, and I had no choice but to tell the trainer about it. If they’d asked me to run six more sprints, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have done it. The trainer told me to go to the weight room and finish my workout there.
“Go do some lifting and see how it feels,” he said.
In the weight room, I went over to the big leg-press machine. I wanted to test my leg. I sat down at the bottom of the machine and put my feet up against a platform that held the weight. I’d loaded only three hundred and fifteen pounds, which for me was a good warm-up. Ordinarily I could press as much as six hundred pounds. I released the lock and let the platform lower so that my knees were bent and ready to push the weight back up. But the instant I tried to push the weight, I realized I was stuck.
The pain in my left knee was so sharp, I couldn’t even push the platform a single inch.
I took my left foot off the platform and used just my right leg to push it back up and lock it. I got off the machine and limped over to our strength coach, Jason Loscalzo, or “Loco,” as we called him.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but I can’t work out my legs,” I told him.
Loco sent me to the trainer, who gave me an ice pack and told me to ice my knee and keep track of the pain.
The ice didn’t help, and neither did rest. The pain in my knee not only continued—it got worse. I went back to practice and I kept doing workouts, and for a few days the pain was manageable. But after a while, it wasn’t. The pain began to colonize my entire leg. It moved up from my knee to my thigh, and it wouldn’t go away. I’d sit in a classroom at Boston College and feel my leg start to throb. Or I’d be in my dorm room playing video games with my roommate, Codi, and I’d feel the pain attacking my leg.
Even in the dead of night, when I was fast asleep, the pain would appear and stab me in the leg, like Freddy Krueger torturing my thigh with his sharply bladed gloves, and I’d wake up with an awful howl.
“Shut up, man; I’m trying to sleep,” Codi would say, and I’d grab my knee and rock back and forth in bed and try to keep my moans as quiet as possible. But nothing I did could make the pain go away. I had no idea what was wrong with me, and neither did anyone else. All I knew was that I was in excruciating pain that was only getting worse.
My screams got so bad, Codi finally had to go sleep in his girlfriend’s room.
For the next several weeks, I wrestled with the pain and lived with the pain and hated the pain and played video games late into the night to take my mind off the pain. I tried to understand the pain, to somehow make sense of it, because not knowing what was wrong or how to fix it was the worst thing of all. I’d had back problems before—could this be some lingering symptom of that? A slipped disk? A pinched nerve? There had to be a logical explanation. Pain doesn’t just happen.
And some nights the pain—my constant companion, my torturer—would let me sleep for a while, an hour or maybe two. But always it came back, hard and angry and all at once, and I’d wake up in the dark, screaming and clutching my knee, at three a.m., at four a.m., then at five and six. The weeks turned into months. I went to see my trainers, and I went to see an orthopedic surgeon. I had an MRI on my back and I was given an epidural. I worked with a chiropractor and I saw a spine specialist. Finally I had an EMG—an electromyogram—to try to diagnose the source of the pain. A few days later, the EMG test results came back.
They were all negative.
As far as the medical community could tell, there was absolutely nothing wrong with me. There was no reason I should have been in pain, much less unbearable pain. No medical professional could verify that I was even in pain. There was no conclusive proof that I was, other than my own testimony. And if the doctors say there is nothing wrong with you, then there is nothing wrong with you—or at least, that’s how it goes in football. I began to suspect some people didn’t believe I was injured. I wondered whether I was making too big a deal of my pain.
Four months after first feeling the pain, the time came to play in Boston College’s spring game. It was the year’s culminating event and a glimpse at what the next season’s team would look like. In those four months my pain had steadily worsened. Some mornings I couldn’t even get out of bed, and most days I could barely walk. But if I wrapped my knee up tightly and swallowed four ibuprofen, I could get out on the field and hobble around like a peg-legged pirate and somehow make it through football practice. At the next-to-last practice before the spring game, I lagged behind all the other linebackers, but I managed to stay on the field to the end.
Afterward, I went up to the trainers and said I felt fine.
“I want to play,” I told them.
That afternoon the medical staff cleared me to play in the spring game.
That night, like every night, I woke up screaming in pain.
The first time I baffled doctors was way back on September 1, 1987. The doctors told my parents they could expect to meet me sometime in the middle of September, but I decided to enter the world a full two weeks before then. My mother paged my father, then working as a sales rep for Ralston Purina, and told him she was in labor. He got the page in an airport, raced home, and found her cleaning up the house.
“What the heck are you doing?” he said. “Drop the vacuum! We have to go to the hospital now!”
“In a minute,” my mother said. “Just let me finish this.”
My father dutifully waited until my mother finished her vacuuming.
“Okay, now we can go,” she said.
I was born in St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield, Missouri, about a half hour from our home in the suburb of Kirkwood. “It’s a boy!” the doctor exclaimed at nine twenty p.m. (my folks had readied the name Kaylee just in case it went the other way). Right from the start, I was a big boy—nine pounds, seven ounces, and twenty-one inches long. When my father’s brother, Adam, held me for the first time, he marveled at my size.
“Boy, oh, boy, look at this kid’s legs!” he said. “This kid is cut!” By “cut” he meant my muscles were defined.
My mother heard him say it and panicked.
“Oh, my God, he’s cut? Where is he cut?” she said, reaching for me.
“No, Barb, not like that,” my uncle said, pinching one of my calves between his thumb and index finger. “Looks like you guys put a golf ball in here!”
From very early on, my life was about sports. For some reason my parents put a tennis ball in my crib with me instead of a rattle, so I learned how to hold a ball before I learned how to walk. By the time I was one year old I could dribble a full-size basketball on our stone driveway and hit a tennis ball right in the center of the racket. My father remembers a game I invented for myself as a two-year-old—I’d take one of those big, bouncy latex balls and lob it in the air, then throw a tennis ball and try to hit it before it landed. Apparently I got pretty good at it and could hit the bouncy ball most of the time. My father tried it once and missed the ball by two feet.
He never played my little game again.
The truth is, I owe any physical prowess I have to my parents. In fact, sports played a part in bringing them together.
My mother and father were both freshmen at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1977. One fall Saturday, my dad, a nose tackle for the Wesleyan Cardinals football team, played in a game against the coast guard. My dad was six feet tall and two hundred and twenty pounds, but still somewhat undersize for his position. He also lacked some of the natural finesse that exceptional athletes seem to possess.
But whatever he lacked in ability, he more than made up for in hustle. My father has the most stubborn work ethic I’ve ever come across. He was what coaches call a “high-motor guy.” That meant he made up for his deficiencies with endless hard work and a death-before-surrender attitude. He was a fighter, a gamer, a blood-and-dirt player. When I was younger I believed his toughness came from his upbringing in a rough part of Connecticut, where he was born. I imagined him constantly being forced to defend himself. But when I finally asked my mother about his childhood, she scoffed.
“He likes to think he grew up in a rough neighborhood,” she said.
I asked my father about it, and he confirmed my mother was right.
“I just grew up with a bunch of other knuckleheads like me who were always starting fights,” he said.
Wherever he got it from, my father was one tough man. In that game against the coast guard he played with his usual reckless abandon and at one point collided head-on with a coast guard player. I don’t know what happened to the other guy, but my father got banged up pretty good. The Wesleyan Cardinals won the game 24–7, but afterward my father couldn’t remember a minute of it.
That night my dad somehow managed to drag himself to a party hosted by his fraternity house, Delta Kappa Epsilon. A pretty girl named Barb Martin, who played in a Wesleyan field hockey game that day, showed up at the frat party, too. She was looking for someone to take her to the dining hall for a bite to eat. My father, still woozy from his concussion, volunteered.
I don’t know whether his likely concussion had anything to do with it, but from what I hear, my father was incredibly charming that night. Over burgers he told corny jokes and made my mother laugh nonstop. The next day they ran into each other again on campus, and my mother was friendly and all smiles.
My father couldn’t figure out who she was.
Eventually my father’s brain got unscrambled, and he dated my mother for the next seven years. One day he took her to the beach, got down on bended knee, and asked for her hand in marriage. As their families got to know one another they discovered an extraordinary coincidence that tied them together long before my mother and father were even born. Both of their grandparents fled the war in Europe, sailing out of the same city—London—in the same year—1940. After some more digging they learned they’d left from the very same port, on the very same boat—the RMS Scythia—on the very same day, April 17.
That our two families were intertwined by a historical coincidence made a great impression on me. There was something deep and important that connected my two families, and indeed my mother and father. Of course they argued, as all couples do, and I’m sure they had dark days or even dark months. But from my point of view, they only seemed to fall deeper and deeper in love as the years went by. Their marriage wasn’t successful because Cupid’s arrow randomly struck them back in 1977. Their marriage was successful because they each made a solemn commitment to make it work. Even before they were married my dad sat down with his soon-to-be in-laws and promised, “I will never divorce your daughter. I love her and I will always fight for us.” And that’s just what he did.
My parents taught me a great love for sports early on, and they also showed me a loving, strong marriage. I may have always dreamed of being an athlete, but that wasn’t my only dream. If I think about it, the first and most important goal I ever articulated to myself was the goal to grow up and have a family of my own that was as loving and committed as the one I grew up in. The values important to athletes like my mom and dad, I would learn, are the same values that go into making a great family. Dedication. Discipline. Loyalty. Hard work. Humility. Respect. Passion. To me, sports and family weren’t two different things—they were part of the same value set, the same lifestyle.
My childhood was all about sports and family, and for as long as I can remember, I always wanted to succeed in both.
When I was six, my father’s company transferred him to eastern Pennsylvania, and today that’s what I call my hometown. We settled in the Philadelphia suburb of Wayne, a pretty, quiet town filled with hundred-year-old spruce trees and two-story homes with picket fences and front lawns. It’s a solidly middle-class community with its share of doctors, lawyers, and financiers commuting to work in Philadelphia. The King of Prussia Mall isn’t too far away, and the kids in town hung out there, meeting up with friends and making an evening out of the two or three dollars you had in your pocket for pizza. Few businesses stayed open past nine p.m., so nightlife usually meant being with your family in kitchens, living rooms, and backyards.
That may sound boring to some people, but it never was for me. That was because I loved playing games.
My neighborhood was filled with backyard trampolines and pools and basketball hoops and Ping-Pong tables, so even before I was old enough for organized leagues I could busy myself from sunup to sundown playing games. Almost every kid under the age of ten played T-ball or soccer or swam for the local team. Then came the peewee games and high school teams. Playing sports was just what kids in Wayne did. It was as natural to us as breathing.
Looking back, I’m pretty lucky to have grown up where I did. But even if I’d grown up in Siberia I’m sure I would have followed my dad into sports.
I completely idolized the larger-than-life image I had of my father growing up. He was handsome in a clean-cut, all-American way, with a strong jaw and a classic mustache he shaved off only once, as far as I know (my mother made him grow it back). He projected confidence and authority. He talked fast but he didn’t talk often, so when he said something it carried weight. There was nothing frivolous about him. If you put a cowboy hat on him he wouldn’t look out of a place in a Western.
Yet he was also warm and friendly and always laughing about something, and at heart he was something of a jokester. He smiled a lot, as if he knew not to take life too seriously. He was nobody’s pushover but he liked kidding around and having fun.
“Mark, guess how many people are dead in there,” he said to me once as we drove past a cemetery.
“I don’t know, Dad. How many?”
“All of ’em,” he said.
The day I went to see my father play lacrosse for the local club team, my mom dressed me up in a white-striped polo shirt tucked into tiny blue shorts. She let me carry my miniature lacrosse stick with a red head and white shaft. I started holding that stick in the morning and didn’t let go of it until I feel asleep that night. I can vividly remember watching my father play in the game, and feeling so proud that he was my dad.
After the game he came over and scooped me up off my feet with one arm. Just a few moments earlier, he’d been all brawn and power on the field, but now he was gentle and tender.
“Wanna play catch?” he asked.
He put me down and I ran onto the field. He passed me the ball and I passed it back to him. I played catch with my hero until it was time to go home.
Despite how lasting and powerful that early memory of him has been for me, the truth is that for the first several years of my life, my father worked so hard, I didn’t get to see him all that much. His job as a salesman for Ralston Purina kept him on the road for long stretches at a time. One Saturday morning I woke up and went to play in my father’s office, since he wasn’t home. Or so I thought. My father walked in and surprised me at his desk.
“Daddy, what are you doing here?” I asked.
It was an innocent question, but it hit my father hard. He was away from his family so often, his young son was shocked to see him home on a Saturday morning. My dad reevaluated his priorities, quit Ralston Purina, and became a financial adviser, which allowed him to work more reasonable hours.
After that, my dad was always around when I needed him. Most afternoons we threw footballs or lacrosse balls in the backyard, and some weekends he’d take me hiking in the woods. We’d sleep in cabins and build fires and explore old Indian trails. Eventually, as I got bigger, we became more competitive. My father and I competed at everything—lacrosse, basketball, running, even board games like Boggle and Scrabble. Not once did my father ever let me win at anything. I don’t think he was capable of not competing as hard as he could, even against his little boy. In fact, I later realized my father sometimes made up phony words so he could score big points and win at Scrabble.
“Z-Y-P-H-R-A,” he’d say. “Zyphra. Fifty-six points.”
“That’s not a word!”
“Sure it is.”
“What does it mean?”
“It’s a subphylum of a coniferous tree in the Pacific Northwest.”
I knew he was making it up, but with a satisfied smirk my dad wrote down the points. He didn’t like to lose, and neither did I. I got my first taste of true competition in the hours I spent with my dad.
My mother was every bit as sports-minded and hands-on as my dad, but she was also a little softer and more tender. Her demeanor was thoughtful and reassuring. She was also our protector, always two steps ahead of the rest of the family, figuring out what we needed. When I was young my mother was the assistant athletic director at Eastern University, a coed college in St. Davids, and she took me to the practices and let me watch the girls play lacrosse and field hockey. And after practices she let me go on the field and pick up a stick and pretend to be one of the players. She was incredibly athletic herself, light and quick and strong, and though she never pushed me into sports, she encouraged my interest in competing. She put me in a position where I absorbed sports into my bloodstream.
At the same time neither of my parents was ever boastful or arrogant. In fact, my father was always modest and self-deprecating. “Your mom is the athlete in the family,” he’d say. “My skill is running into people with my face.” Because of their humility I never, ever felt like I had to live up to any expectation they had of me. I knew they were already proud of me, no matter whether I reached their level of success or not. You read stories about athletes who were driven to succeed by some deep desire to make a parent proud, but I can honestly say that is not my story. My folks gave me the support and freedom to set, and reach, my own goals.
They also drew lines I was forbidden to cross. The day I first cursed in front of my dad he stopped everything, took me by the shoulder, and laid down the law.
“That is not okay,” he said. “There is a way you talk to your friends and a way you talk to your parents. And the way you talk to your parents is with respect.”
Then he added, “Mark, I’m your father, not your friend.”
I had a very healthy respect for my dad, mostly because of how big and strong he was. When I was little I liked hiding behind chairs or in closets and jumping out and surprising my parents. One time I jumped out on my father in the living room and scared him pretty good. I thought he’d just laugh, but instead he turned around and got in a crouch and cocked back his right hand. He was ready to strike. My father had never raised a fist to me or laid a finger on me or even spanked me, and he never would. But seeing him react like that kind of spooked me.
Instantly, my father was mortified.
“Jeez, Marky,” he said, unclenching his fist. “You scared the heck out of me.”
My dad was thirteen when his own parents divorced, and as the eldest boy, he was forced to become the man of the family after his father left. I think that has something to do with the flashes of anger we’d occasionally see. One day when I was eight or nine I made the mistake of being rude to my mom. Nothing made my dad angrier than anyone being rude to my mom. When he came home from work he found me sitting in our little porch off the kitchen.
“I need to talk to you,” he said, his eyes narrowing.
He lectured me about treating my mother with respect, and never talking back to her, and always listening to her, and for some reason I felt I had to offer my side of the story.
“Yeah, but she was being a jerk—”
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Meet the Author
Mark Herzlichis a linebacker for the New York Giants. Winner of the ESPY award for Best Comeback by an Athlete, Mark now seeks to inspire others to fight their own diseases and achieve their dreams in the face of harsh obstacles. He lives in New Jersey.
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Mark Herzlich is a hero. Whenever I'm having a rough day, I think about him and how there are people who have it so much worse. I have nothing but respect for him, he's inspirational and he is a cancer survivor. I read this book and felt like I was by his side through his whole life and I could read it over and over again and never get sick of it! He came to my uncle's Multiple Myeloma 5K in New Caanan, CT and I am so honored to have met him. I am a cowboys fan, but after reading this story I admire him so much I bought his jersey! A must read book, 150%. A big thanks to Mark for teaching me how wrong I was about life, thats knowledge I will have for the rest of my life!
Such a great read
This book shows the courageous fight of not only Mark but the whole family. Once you start reading the story you will not want to stop reading. Mark is an inspiration to all cancer patients as well as survivors such as myself. His journey is remarkable.
A beautifully written memoir of the roller-coaster ride of Mark's fight with his disease, "What It Takes" is an absolute must read. I cannot say enough great things about this book. Mark Herzlich's story is in itself is inspirational, but his book is written in such a way that highlights the reality of the challenges and obstacles he faced throughout his battle with cancer as a young man. If you have been touched, directly or indirectly, by this nondiscriminatory disease, you will most certainly be touched by his story. I would recommend this book to anyone who is, or knows someone who is questioning whether they have "What It Takes" to fight the good fight.