February 3, 2012

Lifestyles: Giants Cancer Survivor, Former Laxer Mark Herzlich

Inspiring linebacker hopes to play in Super Bowl XLVI, once had scholarship offer from Johns Hopkins

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com

New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich played lacrosse at Conestoga (Pa.) High before the battle he faced with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, while at Boston College.
Images courtesy of Herzlich family

Most people know New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich as the inspirational football player who overcame all odds by defeating a rare form of bone cancer, Ewing's sarcoma, to continue playing college football and eventually in the NFL. Herzlich was the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year as a junior, but cancer interrupted his heralded career at Boston College, forcing him to miss the 2009 season while recovering from treatment. He returned to Chestnut Hill for his senior year, starting all 13 games for the Eagles, then signed with the Giants after going undrafted and made the team's 53-man roster out of training camp. But most people don't know Herzlich as the star lacrosse player who was an All-Central League performer at Conestoga in suburban Philadelphia's lacrosse hotbed. Lacrosse, Mark's "go-to sport" growing up, has deep roots in the Herzlich family.

This Sunday, Herzlich hopes to take the field in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis -- he's been recovering from an ankle injury and isn't sure if he'll be active -- when the Giants face the New England Patriots, a team that just happens to be coached by lacrosse superfan Bill Belichick.

Upon arrival in Indianapolis, Herzlich tweeted "2 yrs ago I was told I might never walk again. Just WALKED off plane in Indy to play in The #SuperBowl," to his more than 72,000 followers.

How'd you first get into lacrosse?
My mom [Barbara] and dad [Sandon] both played in college. My mom coached lacrosse at Eastern College, which is now Eastern University, a small college right in my home town. So I was always around lacrosse growing up. I had a lacrosse stick in my hand since I was 2 years old. Once I became old enough to be able to play, I played. It was one of those things where a lot of kids grow up and they play soccer or T-ball, and I did T-ball, but I mostly played lacrosse and football. Those were my sports growing up. When you've got a stick in your hands from that young of an age, at 2, you're kind of destined to play.

Was lacrosse your first love as a sport then?
When I was growing up and when I was in high school, lacrosse was definitely my main sport. I was one of the best players in the area in lacrosse, and I made a couple travel teams. We had a Pennsylvania All-Star team that I played on for two years, in seventh and eighth grades. We won tournaments and traveled all over the place, going to Champ Camp and STX Shootout. I went to those events all summer, and all spring obviously I played. And in the winter, I played indoor. Lacrosse was definitely my main sport and my go-to sport.

Break down your lacrosse career at Conestoga, you were All-League twice.
My freshman year at Conestoga I played attack, and I broke Greg Traynor's freshman scoring record. That was the biggest — freshman year, I was playing on the freshman football team, and then you go on Conestoga's varsity lacrosse team. We were good, and we were a state playoff team. Breaking records and stuff, that was obviously a great point for me in my lacrosse career. I kept building on skills and growing. My sophomore year I played attack, and I played middie and attack my junior year. Before school started my senior year, I committed to play football at Boston College, so I was basically out the door already by the time spring came around my senior year, so I didn't play lacrosse that year while I concentrated on training for football.

What kind of lacrosse player were you?
I was a very physical attackman, and I had a big righty shot. I would play on the crease, and then I would play out in the right attack spot. I would kind of work around and try to get open, post up and then rip shots. That's what I did. My freshman year, we had a bunch of great players on Conestoga. Pat Heim was one of our middies, and he ended up going to Penn State, and he was the No. 1 pick in the MLL after his senior year of college. He would do a lot of sweeping shots that were over-the-top, and then we had a guy Steve Marino who was our X-attackman behind the goal. He would drive left and drive right, and I would settle and find my spot on the crease.

What was your favorite part of lacrosse?
I like the finesse of lacrosse. I always tried to do a lot of hitting; I was a big guy and probably bigger than most guys on the field. But it was more about having great stick skills, trying to fit passes into tight windows with accuracy. That's why I would love taking that shot, because I would be 15 yards away and I could hit corners. It was a weapon. It could make a difference. It spread out the defense a little bit.

When was the last time you picked up a stick?
This past summer. I always have a stick around. I still have my stick from high school, actually. I play with that a lot. That's the type of thing, I still like taking shots and playing around. I would love to play in some summer league somewhere, but it's way too big of a risk for me right now, so I won't be doing that until my football career is over.

Herzlich on his lacrosse future: "I will 100 percent play lacrosse again after football is done." He had a scholarship offer for lacrosse from Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala.

Have you thought about that at all — 10 or 15 years from now, playing competitively?
Absolutely, I definitely will. I will 100 percent play lacrosse again after football is done. The great thing about it, my dad played until he was about 45, playing in the Masters and Grand Masters tournaments. It's so much fun, and you can go out and play. It can be as competitive as you want it to be. The cool thing about our area, in Philadelphia, or Long Island or Maryland, you can get a bunch of 35- or 40-year-old guys who want to go out and play. It's something I would love to do.

Remember what kind of stick you have?
I had an evolution — that was the head I used. And I had a blue STX shaft, one of those light ones, it was the C405. I started using that when I was in seventh or eighth grade, and I just kept getting new ones and new ones and new ones, so that was my stick. I liked that one a lot. That was my weapon of choice.

What colleges offered you lacrosse scholarships? You had at least one from Johns Hopkins.
My recruiting for lacrosse, I kind of turned a lot of people away after I started getting offers for football, because I knew I would go to school to play football. My offer from Hopkins came my sophomore year of high school, so they were my first one. And then, I took a couple visits down to Virginia and different places, but coach Dave Pietramala saw a very, very large man who could take up a lot of space on the crease, and he really tried to jump on it. But that was my only scholarship offer for lacrosse.

Coach Pietramala wrote you a letter after you committed to Boston College leaving the door open to attend Hopkins. What did that mean?
It was nice. It was a tough decision for me, to choose football over lacrosse, because I had always loved lacrosse so much. But it was nice to see, 'OK, well if I change my mind about this, I have a spot at arguably one of the best schools over the last decades at lacrosse.' I followed them closely. I know I went to every final four since I was about 10 years old, up until I was in college. And then I watched them all on TV when I was up at school. Hopkins was such a great spot.

You made the decision to play football in college during your junior year?
Yeah, during my junior year. The decision, at the time, came down mostly to the fact that lacrosse scholarships were pretty much based on financial need. You get as much as you need and sometimes a little bit more. But football scholarships are all full scholarships. It wasn't making a decision about, 'Oh, I can make it to the NFL by playing football.' It was more the mental and physical aspect of the game combined in the right way, I fell in love with it my junior year.

Ever seriously consider being a two-sport star in college?
I knew that if I wanted to play Division-I football that it wouldn't really be an option to do both sports. My two top schools I was looking at were Boston College and Virginia to play football. Virginia also has a Division-I lacrosse team, but Boston College doesn't have a lacrosse team. So I flirted with the idea of playing club lacrosse, but then the risk-reward ratio was too great of getting hurt. I think would my defensive coordinator would've axed that down pretty quickly.

Do you think Boston College should bring back men's lacrosse, especially after the ACC-Big East conference realignment?
I would love to see it come back to BC. More than the ACC-Big East realignment, it might be more of a Title IX thing. At a relatively smaller school, if you wanted men's lacrosse you would have to add a girl's sport as well, and I don't know the logistics of that. It's such a great sport, and if it came back to The Heights at Boston College, that would be awesome. I would definitely follow the team. It would be cool, because Florida State added a team a couple years ago, and it would be cool to extend the ACC all the way up to Boston from Florida. That would be pretty sweet.

"I wore the triangle under my eyes," Herzlich said. "That was the cool thing to do, back when I was in high school."

What crossover skills are there between football and lacrosse that helped on both fields?
Vision is probably the biggest thing. When you're running down the field and you've got a fast break or something, you have to see the field and make a decision fast, make a precision pass. They talk about inches in football, and it's inches in lacrosse. If you throw a pass a second too soon or too late, there's a defender there. That's one of the biggest things, seeing players on the lacrosse field, and I think that carried over to football, in terms of being a defender and reading what's about to happen in front of you. That was a big carryover.

Would other NFL players would make good lacrosse players?
Well, Pat Kerney was a pretty good lacrosse player. I'm sure they would. If you get big, fast, athletic guys with good hand-eye coordination, I think a lot of them would be good lacrosse. But it's not a sport that's easy to pick up when you're older, because it's different. I'm sure a lot of them started when they were young and the stick became like another appendage. You watch the best lacrosse players, it's like they don't even have a stick in their hands, and they're just doing everything like it's second nature and part of their body.

Any football players in particular that would look good on a lacrosse field? Will Yeatman previously suggested Chad Ochocinco to LM.
Except, I don't know, Ochocinco might have too much of an abrasive personality. Lacrosse players are kind of chill and laid back. I don't know how well that would go over. But I'm just thinking about Jason Pierre-Paul, a defensive end for the Giants, he's 300 pounds, 6-foot-6, fast and incredibly agile. He probably has an 11-foot wingspan. If you put a D-pole in his hands, I don't know if anyone could ever get by him. I don't understand how anyone could do anything against him. You don't get type of guy on a lacrosse field very often, but you don't get that type of guy on a football field very often either.

Did you wear the same eye black in college games?
I did. I wore the triangle under my eyes playing lacrosse. That was the cool thing to do, back when I was in high school, so I did that. It all evolved. The more eye black I put on, the more creative I got. And then I put the full mask on in college. But the reason I don't do that now, it's illegal in the NFL to put that much on. It wasn't as much about intimidation, it was more for fun, you just put on eye black before games, that's how we did it.

Who was the best lacrosse player you ever saw or played against?
I don't know, that's tough. The best lacrosse player I ever played with was P.T. Ricci [now with the MLL's Boston Cannons]. I played with him at Conestoga. He was lightning-fast as a long-pole.

Your mom, Barbara, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick were inducted to Wesleyan Athletics Hall of Fame on the same day. What was that like?
It was cool. It was after my sophomore year of college. My mom got inducted, and it was the inaugural class at Wesleyan. Meeting Bill Belichick was cool, because I was just a sophomore in college, and he was the man. She actually got inducted again this past year, so she's been inducted twice now to the Hall of Fame. I don't know how that's possible, but she did. It was a brief conversation with coach Belichick. I just told him that I played lacrosse. He had heard my name, but I was young and he didn't know much about me yet. But that' when I first met him. He was a great guy, and he had his family there, so it was really cool to see.

Your dad started a youth lacrosse organization in your hometown?
There was a league before in the township, and it was under poor management. A bunch of the parents decided that they wanted to make lacrosse an affordable, good experience for the kids, and kind of change the way things were run. They made it more of a learning experience, as opposed to a for-profit experience for management. That's how it came about. His first team he had was my brother Brad's team, and they were U-9, so they were probably 7 years old. They went out to the local library and my dad brought his riding lawn mower out and cut the grass. He brought lacrosse goals from my house and set them up. These kids could barely hold a stick, and my dad would run around and do laps with them. That's how it started: In the little park at the local library. A year later it became an official league, Conestoga Youth Lacrosse, and three years later there were 600 kids in the program. It blew up. He ran it with my mom, she was on the board for six or seven years. He handed it off, and now it's doing great. My brother's class, that first class, they did "duck runs," where my dad would be the lead duck and they would all follow behind him on a job through the woods. And that same group of kids won back-to-back state championships the last two years, which was just a testament to that group of people, my dad, my mom, their friends. They got that area of lacrosse to where it's at now, and now they're unstoppable. I think off last year's team they had 10 guys go to Division-I programs. It's a good program now.

A young Mark Herzlich tossing around as a child. He said he had a stick in his hand at the age of 2.

Reader sumbitted on facebook.com/LacrosseMagazine (from Bart M. Rogers, Jr., Leonardtown, Md.)
Beating cancer required a lot of mental fortitude. How much did your battle against cancer help you with the mental aspects of training camp and making the team?

The biggest thing is having a positive attitude. A lot of times, in any sport, when things aren't going your way, you've just got to envision yourself making the play or doing the right thing. That kind of ties into what I went through with cancer, because I wasn't feeling good. I was told I would not play again. I was given a recovery percentage, but instead of looking at it and feeling back for myself, or on the football field thinking, 'Oh man, I really blew this one,' I was trying to envision myself getting back and playing again and doing all the right things. That's the same way with sports and making the Giants.

Reflecting on the past five years, do you ever stop and have to pinch yourself?
I do. I have to stop and say, 'Wow,' sometimes. I get so caught up in playing and studying for games and all that other stuff, that I don't realize it all the time. A lot of times it happens when I'm on the field and listening to the National Anthem. I look around and see that I'm on the New York Giants and all the special things I've been able to be apart of.

You made your first start against the Eagles. What was that like, playing against team you grew up rooting for?
It was great. The Eagles were one thing, but it was an important game. I just got to go out there and have fun and do my thing. I knew that I had prepared for the game, and I knew what was going to happen. All I had to do was let loose. Being able to do that and play your game, that's all you can ask for. I got that chance.

What has been the most surprising thing about your NFL experience?
I was surprised at how there is a family feel here. Everyone has your back. No one is really trying to undercut you. You hear about the NFL, as a sport, how everyone's out to try to get you, and I haven't experience that yet. It might be the New York Giants environment, which starts at the top with John Mara being a really respected guy in football. He does things the right way, and I think that trickles down to coach [Tom] Coughlin and his players. Everybody wants you to success, and that's a great atmosphere to be in.

How many of your teammates know about your lacrosse-playing background?
I would say zero know. My teammates in college knew, because we would go out for 7-on-7's and stuff, and I would bring my stick with me. We had the lacrosse goals on the practice field, so I would take shots and mess around. I would shoot a tennis ball at them and see if they could move out of the way fast enough and not get hit. We did really smart things like that in college. But I doubt any of my Giants teammates know. Maybe I'll get them out playing soon. Who knows?

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