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July 27, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Lives can change in the blink of an eye, but they can never be put back together that quickly.
During the 2008 football season, Mark Herzlich was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year at Boston College and Nate Irving was an outstanding linebacker at NC State.
In March of 2009, Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of cancer. In June of 2009, Irving was seriously injured in a terrible car accident.
Both missed the 2009 season, but neither lost sight of the ultimate goal – returning to the football field. As the 2010 season approaches, after arduous treatment and rehab work, they are both closing in on that goal.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll get out and play again,” Herzlich said during this week’s ACC Football Kickoff. “The level at which I’ll play is unknown right now.”
Herzlich’s cancer is in remission and he has been cleared to play. The tumor in his left femur was treated with long bouts of chemotherapy and radiation. A titanium rod was inserted in the length of his lower leg, and he has worked diligently to regain flexibility. X-rays have indicated that the leg is strong.
Still, he understands there are risks and he’s willing to accept the consequences.
“It could break, but it’s not going to break any more easily than any other person’s leg,” Herzlich said. “The problem comes if it does break. If my leg breaks, it will have a very hard time healing because of all the radiation damage, the chemo damage, to the actual spot.”
But Herzlich doesn’t want to go out and be overcautious on the field. After all, hitting people – and hitting them hard – is one of the key components of playing linebacker.
“Whether a freak accident happens to me, on the field or in a car accident or something like that,” he said, “that’s out of my control. So I’ve just got to keep playing like I would any time.”
Irving remembers little about the accident on Interstate 40 as he headed back to campus one night. One moment he was passing an 18-wheeler and his next conscious memory was staring at the lights of a hospital as he was being wheeled down a corridor. He was told later that he had drifted to the left, over-corrected to the right and run off the road.
The accident left him with a broken rib, a punctured lung, a separated shoulder and a compound fracture of his left leg. The latter took the longest to heal and progress was slower than he anticipated.
Whereas Herzlich was initially told he would never play football again, Irving just had to give his body time to heal. He knew he would come back, and he wanted to return better than ever.
“I believed for a long time that nothing stays the same,” Irving said. “So instead of trying to get back to where I was, the expectations are to be better than where I was, on and off the field. I don’t have a problem with working for something that I want. You have to work for everything you want, and I believe in working hard for it.”
It’s an athlete’s nature to be optimistic, to believe the best is going to happen for him on the field of play. Coaches tend to be more realistic. So while Frank Spaziani of Boston College and Tom O’Brien of NC State are ecstatic to have their star players back, their enthusiasm is tempered.
“I try to make this analogy, that it’s like a man going into space,” Spaziani said. “This is the first time anybody has tried to do this (recover from cancer and play with a titanium rod), so we’ll take it one day at a time. We’ll wait and see what happens.
“I’ll take a leap of faith here. If he’s back to where he was – and that is a leap, we all understand that – back to the ACC defensive player of the year, that’s a big plus to have. Not many of us have experienced a miracle, I know I haven’t. He’s had one already (and) he’s looking for number two.
“I don’t know how he’s going to hold up day to day; he doesn’t know how he’s going to hold up day to day. This is what we know for sure: he’s going to work and work and work and that’s his goal, to get it done. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
O’Brien said Irving is not yet back to where he was before the accident, but doctors have told him they don’t need to see him again. If Irving can regain the explosiveness that set him apart from other linebackers, then the Wolfpack defense will be dramatically improved.
“Nate finishes plays,” O’Brien said. “A lot of guys can read plays and can get there and inspect the body after they get there. Nate is not like that. He makes the play. He’s gotten us off the field in the situations where we needed it.
“If he can play middle linebacker for 12 games like he is capable of playing, it will be a huge boost to the defense.”
Despite their circumstances, neither player spent much time indulging in self-pity.
“I knew the process was going to be tough, it was going to be long, it was going to be grueling,” Herzlich said, “but I knew I had to go at it with a positive attitude. I knew I needed to push, I knew I needed to give everything I had to beat the cancer.”
He survived the tough days and tried to take advantage of the not-so-tough ones, getting outside to play golf or just hang with his friends, anything to put some normalcy back in his life. Once the treatments began to work, he focused on a second goal.
“Then it was a push for ‘not only am I going to beat this, I’m going to play football again,’” he said. “I’m going to play football, and I’m going to get back to the level I was at. I always try to strive for great expectations. It would make no sense to come out and play again if you’re not going to push to be the best you can be.”
Herzlich realizes he may not be able to reach his old level, even if he strives for it. He knows everyone will be comparing his statistics to 2008, when he made 110 tackles and intercepted six passes, returning two for touchdowns. He’ll be making those same comparisons.
“I’ll be able to sit back at the end of the season and say how did it go?” he said. “And it will either be great or it will be OK. But it can’t be bad because just coming back and playing is going to be great in itself.”
As Irving began his long recovery process, he got a boost from family members.
“They jump-started me at the beginning of my rehab,” he said. “They never let me feel sorry for myself. They told me what happened, happened for a reason, so try to pull some good from it and learn from it. They were all right there in my corner, doing what they could in different ways.”
Like Herzlich, Irving realized that he couldn’t just blink his eyes and return everything to normal. He would wake up early, go to treatment, then to class, then return for more treatment and go watch his teammates practice while he did what he could.
“I never doubted that I was going to return,” Irving said, “but when I began my rehab, things weren’t going the way I wanted them to. It was a little bit slower than I thought it should be, so that was the hard part.
“My doctor gave me the green light to go out and participate (in spring practice), so I did everything to the max, what I could do. Going through the spring, getting that out of the way, getting it under my belt, I feel a whole lot better knowing that I can handle what football demands of my body.”
Both players said their lives have changed, and changed for the better. Herzlich has gotten involved in raising money for cancer research. He has met numerous cancer survivors and cancer patients and hears from others via emails and letters.
“I think it has become, by choice, something that I want to do,” he said. “It’s not something that was forced on me and I said ‘I guess I have to do this.’ Besides football, this is what I want to base my life around, to help people overcome this disease and to help raise money to stop it.”
Irving believes the accident and what he has done to come back have matured him.
“At the time I didn’t appreciate so many of the small things, things I took for granted,” he said. “Like how to make smarter decisions, thinking about how those decisions can affect me in the long run instead of thinking short term.”
Herzlich and Irving didn’t really know each other before the 2010 ACC Football Kickoff. They spent some time together, not so much comparing notes but talking about coaches they have had in common. O’Brien was the coach at Boston College before moving to NC State and Wolfpack assistant coach Dana Bible, who is battling cancer himself, was also an Eagles assistant.
Each player is anxiously awaiting is the start of training camp, less than two weeks away. Their tribulations have given them a new appreciation for a time of year that most players consider drudgery.
“Before this happened, it was like ‘go to camp and get this over with so we can go into the season,’” Irving said. “Now I look forward to going through the rigors of camp.
“My teammates won’t be taking it easy on me. A couple of linemen said they can’t wait to put my helmet in the dirt.”
Herzlich looks forward to slamming into offensive tackles and runners. For him, the opening of camp will be another in a long series of steps to regain his old life. That will include painting his face on game days, although he’s not sure if he will return to his Mohawk haircut.
“You want to finish radiation, you want to finish chemotherapy, you want to get the surgery over with,” he said. “It’s the same thing in coming back for football. At first I needed to get my flexibility back, where all my muscles were firing again, so I could strengthen my leg.
“The next step will be going out and practicing for the first time, going out and seeing how everything feels. Another goal is getting to the first game and playing, then through the season, beating ACC teams. Then at that point it turns into the goals I have after college football.”
But he doesn’t want things to happen in the blink of an eye; as both he and Irving understand, there is too much to savor along the way.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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