Football Notes

Herzlich tackled cancer; Bruschi got the assist

M. HERZLICH Has a role model M. HERZLICH
Has a role model
By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / June 13, 2010

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Mark Herzlich has become a friend of Tedy Bruschi, and because of Bruschi’s philanthropic nature, the help the retired Patriot is lending the Boston College senior doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary.

But this one is significant for Bruschi, and it goes back to the stroke he suffered in 2005, the beginning of his long road back from the sickbed to the football field.

“When I called my doctor, I told him, ‘Give me the number of the guy who’s done it before, so I can ask him a million questions,’ ’’ Bruschi recalled. “Then there was silence. He said, ‘Tedy, you’d be the first.’ And I said, right away, ‘I’ll call you back.’

“I didn’t know if I wanted to do it. That was a lot of pressure, being the first.

“Having gone through it, I can relate my experience to Mark: ‘This is how I felt. These were the times I doubted myself.’

“To let Mark know it’s possible, it can be done, to have the ability to do that, it’s very . . .’’

He paused.

“I can’t tell you how much . . . It humbles me.’’

Herzlich’s case, though, is not identical to Bruschi’s.

In May 2009, while home from school at the end of spring semester, the BC linebacker went to the doctor complaining of pain and swelling in his leg. An MRI prompted his orthopedist to send him to an oncologist, who told Herzlich he had Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer.

A year later, he is full speed ahead toward his goal of a return to the football field, having regained the flexibility in his left leg while returning to his playing weight. He says his leg is about “80-85 percent,’’ so there is some strengthening to be done yet, but all signs indicate he’ll be ready to go when the Eagles start camp in August.

Bruschi, on the other hand, was coming back from a different affliction — a mild stroke — and was in his early 30s, while Herzlich is 23.

“They’re different diseases, different things that happened, but it’s really the same process that I’m going through,’’ Herzlich said. “It’s a process, and it’s not going to happen overnight. Reading about his battle, talking to him about what he went through, is positive motivation. Someone has done this. I can do it, too.’’

That reading, actually, is what led to the two connecting.

During Herzlich’s therapy, he read Bruschi’s book, “Never Give Up: My Stroke, My Recovery and My Return to the NFL,’’ drawing such inspiration from it that he felt compelled to reach out.

So Herzlich called ex-BC teammate Ron Brace, then a Patriots rookie, and told him to give Bruschi his number. Bruschi called right after Herzlich was told he was cancer-free, saying to him, “That’s great. Just be proud to be a survivor.’’

“And that’s the message that’s stuck in my head forever,’’ Herzlich said.

Soon thereafter, Bruschi surprised Herzlich on the set of ESPN’s “College GameDay’’ when the pregame show came to BC last fall.

“What’s most impressed me about Mark is he has incredible depth,’’ Bruschi said. “He’s a young college player and, as a college athlete, sometimes it takes time to develop that depth and maturity in being an individual. Everyone recognizes that in how he speaks, in how he’s tackled adversity.

“He never talked about what happened to him. It’s, ‘What’s the next challenge?’ It takes incredible growth and maturity after what he went through to get there. But he’s there, and it didn’t take long for him to get there.’’

Where Bruschi was once a shoulder for Herzlich to lean on, he’s more than that now. A friendship that was natural among two linebackers has grown.

“If I can do something for him, I’d love to,’’ Herzlich said, “and if he can do something for me, he’d love to.’’

Herzlich will be working at Bruschi’s camp, the SBLI Kids Football Clinic, on June 24, and playing in his charity golf tournament June 28 at TPC Boston in Norton. In return, Bruschi will play in Herzlich’s golf tournament Aug. 2.

“I’ve got another friend now,’’ Bruschi said. “We can talk linebacker to linebacker. It’s the same position. We’ve dealt with some of the same adversity. And now he’s blazing his own trail and I get to watch every step of the way.

“I didn’t plan this or set out to do anything but help. It’s just what it turned out to be. I think Mark is probably the most direct example, the most similar to me. Playing the same position, something comes along to derail him, now how do you deal with it? How do you get through things?

“I’m happy he could lean on those who’ve gone through it before, and I’m proud he and I have developed a relationship.’’

Sometimes lost in Herzlich’s remarkable story of perseverance is just how good he was before he learned of his cancer.

The 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Herzlich passed up the option of declaring early for the NFL draft and returned to The Heights as one of the most highly thought of college prospects — regardless of position — in the country.

Now? Just making it back on the field will be a tremendous accomplishment. But it’s clear Herzlich has his eyes on so much more. And he has a pretty knowledgeable friend as a believer.

“What I’m betting on is next April, I’ll be working the draft for ESPN and we’ll be talking about what team Mark Herzlich is going to,’’ Bruschi said. “I’m looking forward to that.’’


Mangini feels he has driven home a point

Last year, Browns coach Eric Mangini bused rookies from Cleveland to Hartford to work his Football Fundamentals Minicamp, and came under fire for doing so. Last weekend, the one-day camp went off with far less hoopla; 916 kids from about 80 high schools in five states registered, and 80-85 percent were there on scholarship.

And if there was one regret Mangini had from last year, it was that this camp, now in its ninth year, and the foundation attached were cast in a negative light because of the bus trip. The best way to make it right? Keep pushing the same message he was trying to send to those rookies all along.

“The thing I constantly remind the players is ‘somebody helped you,’ ’’ Mangini said. “Somebody along the way helped you become successful, and you have to give back. These kids look up to you. When you go over and talk to them, don’t talk about football, talk about school, talk about doing the right thing. Talking about all those things will help them a lot more than these [football] lessons.’’

One peripheral benefit last year involved the implementation of the culture Mangini had in mind for the Browns. He expected bumps. And they came.

“When you go in, there’s a time when it’s difficult for the organization, for the players to get used to the new system,’’ Mangini said. “But it’s a system I believe in, it’s based on good people, working together, not caring about the credit, not caring about personal goals. And when you have that, you can do incredible things. I learned that in New England, 2001, and it’s defined my coaching philosophy.’’

It took root slowly, with the Browns starting 1-11. But the club strung together a four-game winning streak at season’s end.

Last November, Mangini told the Globe he saw remarkable similarities between the 2000 Patriots and the 2009 Browns. Reminded of that, he didn’t back down.

“I see a lot of real jumps,’’ Mangini said. “There’s a lot of lessons we’ve learned. Now, the way it’s going to be valuable is if we can take those lessons and apply them at the start of the season and grow and build off that.’’


Guard is now regarded as a valuable position

There was a time when guard was considered a disposable position.

Then Seattle’s Steve Hutchinson signed a landmark seven-year, $49 million deal with the Vikings in 2006, and perception of the position forever changed.

Leonard Davis, Kris Dielman, and Derrick Dockery followed with comparable deals in 2007. Alan Faneca, Chris Snee, and Eric Steinbach broke the bank in 2008. And earlier this offseason, Saints guard Jahri Evans was reupped to the tune of $56.7 million over seven years.

So what happened to a spot that any old lineman used to be able to play?

“First of all, it only takes one — that first one — to set a precedent,’’ said an AFC scout. “Hutchinson was the best at what he did at that time, and he’s still pretty damn good, and now every agent uses that deal. He was the highest paid in the league, but now that’s the average for the elite guys.

“The other thing is teams are asking guards to do more now. It’s not just the big boy who gets help and is covered up by the tackle. In the past, if a tackle wasn’t a good enough athlete, you put him at guard because he needed help around him.

“You rarely find a guard that’s starting now that can’t get to the second level [of the defense].’’

What really separates the elite is the versatility to dominate in tight quarters, and to pull, trap, and play in space, giving an offense the ability to run behind him or have him lead on screens.

The scout said, in general, you see two prevailing ways to build a line that can dictate these payouts. One incorporates balance, which is to build continuity with good but great players that are affordable, which is what New England has done over the years. The other is to invest and make one side or the other dominant, with one great tackle and one great interior player, and fill in the blanks with younger players.

The argument is relevant locally because of Logan Mankins’s contract situation. The Patriots have long preferred balance up front, but now one of their own has grown into a top-dollar player. It’ll be telling how this one plays out.


Miami excited about pair of sharp corners

Receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who retired from football last week, gave a hat-tip to the Dolphins’ young corner duo of Vontae Davis and Sean Smith on his way out, comparing them to the Patrick Surtain/Sam Madison pair that served as part of the foundation of some highly ranked Miami defenses around the turn of the century. The hope in Miami is that the two will evolve into playmakers as sophomores, and they flashed that ability in practice last week. Davis undercut Brian Hartline toward the sideline, picked the ball off, then pitched it off to Smith, who had a clear path to the end zone. “The break on the ball [by Davis] was tremendous,’’ coach Tony Sparano said. “Then to see Sean exactly where he was supposed to be there to finish the play, that was pretty good.’’ With the previous No. 1 corner Will Allen coming back from ACL surgery, the position has a chance to be a strength on the team’s rising young defense. The biggest question on that side of the ball will be the pass rush, and that means the continued development of Cameron Wake as a full-timer and the performance of rookie Koa Misi coming off the edge are vital.

Something building in San Francisco?
While the 49ers cleared a major hurdle in their decades-long battle to get a Bay area stadium built (this one in Santa Clara), plenty of stumbling blocks loom ahead. Voters passing “Measure J’’ secured $114 million in public funds for the facility, but that is just 12.2 percent of the total cost of the project. The Niners still must secure $493 million in financing to get shovels in the ground, and it won’t be easy. Part of that will likely have to come from the NFL’s now-depleted stadium fund, and the league is on record as wanting the Niners to share a new venue — wherever it might be — with the Raiders, who are focused on getting a new place of their own in Oakland. Then there’s the $330 million slated to come from a stadium authority that’s yet to be established, and will be partially reliant on a naming-rights deal. How tough will that be? Well, the Jets and Giants, playing in the nation’s biggest media market, haven’t been able to secure one in this economic climate; nor have the Cowboys, who may be the league’s most recognizable brand. So was Tuesday’s win a significant one? Yes, but the 49ers got to this point with the city of San Francisco in 1997, and things fell apart then.

President for hire
Kevin Mawae made the Pro Bowl the last two years, but he’s been around the block long enough to understand the Titans’ decision to go younger at center, signing Eugene Amano to a five-year deal to kick inside from guard and replace him. What’s harder for the 39-year-old to swallow is that, among the 31 other clubs, he can’t find a job right now. And he isn’t afraid to raise the question of whether it has anything to do with the labor climate and his place as NFLPA president. While acknowledging that he might be the type of older player teams would sign later on during training camp, he said, “It’s a little surprising that I’m not on a roster right now, given that I’ve had two really good seasons in a row. But the only people that could answer that question for you are management or owners. There’s a part of me that wants to say yes, but I’m not going to say I’m getting blackballed. I’m just saying it certainly does play into the equation a little bit.’’ With a possible lockout looming, expect teams to be careful with players who are active in the union and could create distractions (even justified ones) during the 2010 season.

Kolb is their man
Eagles coach Andy Reid isn’t leaving anything to chance with the perception of his quarterback situation. Kevin Kolb is firmly entrenched as the starter, taking all the first-team reps, and part of that is preparing to ride out any bumps in his early days atop the depth chart and sending a clear message. Give Michael Vick credit, too, for accepting his role as a part-time player in the Philadelphia offense, as the team installs its “Spread Eagle’’ package. “This is my role and this is what I’m going to be doing pretty much the majority of the season,’’ Vick said. “Who knows, the role could expand a little bit, but if this is what it’s going to be, then I’m going to have fun doing it.’’ Characterizing the package as “Wildcat’’ is oversimplifying what the Eagles want to do, which includes plenty of concepts from the college spread “Q Series’’ style of offense.

Three and out
Tomorrow and Tuesday will be big days for teams and their remaining unsigned restricted free agents. If the RFAs like Mankins, Vincent Jackson, Donald Penn, and Elvis Dumervil don’t sign their tender offers by tomorrow, their clubs can lower those offers to 110 percent of the player’s 2009 salary Tuesday. That may work to poison negotiations, but most teams in this position seem ready to pull the trigger . . . Have to wonder whether the whistle-blowing happening at OTAs, with the Raiders and Ravens being slapped on the wrist, is tied to the union’s militant tone of late. It may not add up to much more than bluster, but the message from the NFLPA has been that it won’t be pushed around anymore . . . Pete Carroll, who has had a rough week with the USC program he built drilled by NCAA sanctions, hinted that he plans to use recently released Patriot Isaiah Stanback creatively. The Cowboys and New England chose not to use him as an option-type of quarterback, but Carroll saw Stanback in that role full-time while coaching against him in college, so he could have something in mind.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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