“No matter how far life pushes you down, no matter how much you hurt, you can always bounce back.”
First player to be signed to the NBA
It’s no secret that athletes have a mental toughness that is unique to those who compete against others and themselves on the playing field. But what does an athlete do when life throws unexpected adversities? This was the case for two extraordinary football players who found themselves literally fighting for their lives when cancer decided to rear its ugly head.
New York Giants Linebacker
Mark Herzlich started feeling pain in his leg early in 2009 during the end of his junior season with Boston College. When the season was over, his mother, Barbara, insisted he get an MRI to find out the source of the pain. Shortly after the MRI, Herzlich received a phone call advising him to visit an oncologist. Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of bone cancer than can spread to other bones as well as his lungs. Doctors had not known, without doing a biopsy, how far the cancer had spread. If they had caught it early enough, there would be a 70 percent survival rate for Herzlich. If the cancer had spread, the survival rate would drop to 10 percent.
The cancer-stricken linebacker was faced with two options for an attempt at recovery. He could opt for surgery to cut and replace the affected bone in his leg; or Herzlich could bypass surgery and continue chemotherapy. Surgery would surely be the end of his football career, so Herzlich decided continue with chemo…7 months and 50 cycles of radiation.
The return to football was quick. Though he missed the 2009 season, Herzlich returned to the field in 2010 starting all 13 games with Boston College. With his cancer in remission, Herzlich signed as an undrafted free agent with the New York Giants. On November 20, 2011, he made his first NFL start against the Philadelphia Eagles; the team he had been a fan of growing up.
“When I was going through the process, I wouldn’t allow myself to fall into that pattern of thinking, ‘Why me?’ Then hope would have been lost. You don’t want to lose hope or quit on yourself.”
- Mark Herzlich
For more of Mark Herzlich’s story, visit http://www.espn.com/new-york/nfl/story/_/id/6857125/new-york-giants-mark-herzlich-looks-back-victory-cancer
To read more about his fight with cancer from the Giants linebacker himself, visit http://nypost.com/2014/05/24/giants-lb-mark-herzlich-has-what-it-takes-to-beat-cancer/
University of Pittsburgh Running Back
December 2015 James Conner announced his diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma. The former Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year found himself competing in the game of his life, but his team, the Pittsburgh Panthers, made sure he would not fight alone.
“Know this: James Conner will not face this challenge alone. We are all going to be right beside him every step of the way. And the day that he is declared cancer free, we will all celebrate like we do
after one of his patented touchdown runs. James has never backed down from an opponent and
we all know this is a battle he will win.”
- Pat Narduzzi,
Pittsburgh Panthers’ Head Coach
Conner finished his 12th and final chemo treatment May 10 and announced himself cancer free. His goal, he said, was to get back on the football field.
His goal was met September 3, 2016 against Villanova when Conner led the Panthers out of the tunnel for a 28-7 win.
“It’s not my first game,” Conner said. “I know it’s a comeback game, but it’s felt like a regular-season football camp, really. My battle was already won. Beating cancer, everything else was a reward.”
- James Conner
For more on James Conner’s story, visit http://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/17456088/james-conner-pitt-panthers-plays-first-game-cancer-diagnosis