Herzlich out to bowl ’em over

In Senior game, a point to prove

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / January 27, 2011

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MOBILE, Ala. — Given all he has been through, NFL teams can be sure that Mark Herzlich will deal well with any adversity that comes with being a professional football player. He won’t sulk if he’s unhappy with his playing time, won’t go into a shell if he gets chewed out by coaches.

The problem for the Boston College linebacker isn’t his mental makeup but his physical well-being. He must prove to teams that he is back at full strength and worth a pro contract, a process that began this week at the Senior Bowl and will continue with the combine and team visits over the next three months leading up to the NFL draft.

By now, Herzlich’s story is well-known: The 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year as a junior, he learned a few months after that season — after feeling sharp pain in his left leg — that he was suffering from Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

He missed the entire 2009 season, and with it an opportunity to be a top-10 pick in the draft. In the grand scheme, of course, that is minor.

Herzlich, a Pennsylvania native, attacked the disease with the ferocity he once directed at opponents, and returned to the Eagles last season. He was limited late in the season by a broken hand but is now healthy and has been training consistently. He feels he is as good as he’s ever been, if not better.

Now he just has to convince teams of that.

“I think this week I’m trying to ease their minds,’’ said Herzlich. “I’m sure coming into this game people had questions about the health and stuff. Hopefully by the end of it, they’ll realize that’s not an issue.’’

There’s one way to accomplish that, he added.

“You just play and show them that it’s not,’’ he said. “My left leg was the leg that was affected; hopefully when scouts are looking, they say, ‘Which leg was it?’

“That’s the biggest way to see there’s no problem.’’

Herzlich said doctors have told him there’s only 1-2 percent chance the cancer will recur.

One front office executive here this week said Herzlich looked good at the weigh-in Monday, when he measured 6 feet 3 1/2 and 250 pounds, and while he performed well on the field, the major questions won’t be answered until next month at the NFL Combine, where Herzlich and every other prospect will be put through a series of medical exams.

The executive noted that one way to gauge whether Herzlich’s medical status isn’t much of a question will be the number of predraft visits he makes. Those visits typically are made so further medical tests can be done, so if Herzlich goes to see a lot of teams, it would be a sign that clubs aren’t convinced of his recovery; if he doesn’t make many, that would be a positive sign.

But teams’ medical standards are different; some players pass physicals with one team but fail another’s.

Another issue is trying to project where he would fit best; many scouts believe he’ll do well as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. But the Senior Bowl has teams play in a 4-3 alignment.

“I think that each team’s a little different,’’ said Herzlich, who is doing his predraft training at IMG in Bradenton, Fla. “All I can do really is perform in the system that I’m in right now; we’re playing a 4-3 and I’m learning this position so I need to excel at that and then hopefully show people that I can fit in their system and I’m versatile.

“When you can only play one position, it’s tough to play linebacker, so you’ve got to be able to play all of them.’’

Being on the field and getting to know his teammates on the North squad for Saturday’s game has been the best part of the week for Herzlich, who called it a challenge to be up until 11 p.m. or later interviewing with teams and then get up the next morning and be mentally ready for practice and team meetings.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, whose staff is coaching the North, said of Herzlich, “I think he’s done a nice job. I think he’s a physical kid, a big kid, and it’s a good opportunity for him to have.’’

Lewis could not recall dealing with another player who had overcome the health issue that Herzlich has.

As BC trained for its bowl game against Nevada in early January, Herzlich was able to get even stronger, doing speed work he hadn’t done before the season.

He confidently said he feels he’s better than he was before his cancer.

“And I believe that going forward I’ll get even better,’’ he said.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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