By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — There was a time when Mark Herzlich expected to spend many fall afternoons in Scott Stadium. In the summer before his senior year at Conestoga High in Berwyn, Pa., he committed to play football for UVa.
Those plans changed later that year when he decommitted from UVa, opting instead for Boston College. But Herzlich, now a BC senior, still thinks highly of the school he almost chose, and he’s eager to see Charlottesville for the first time in four years.
“It will be a little different,” he said Monday afternoon, “because first of all this is the first time we’ve played Virginia since I’ve been here. It’s also the first time I’ve been down to UVa since I visited.
“I know a lot of the players down there. I know a lot of the coaches.”
This is likely to be an emotional trip for Herzlich, whose story is familiar to college football fans. Virginia hosts BC on Saturday, and the reigning ACC defensive player of the year, a 6-4 linebacker, will be with his teammates at Scott Stadium.
In street clothes.
He was diagnosed last spring with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in his left leg, and hasn’t played since. Herzlich, 22, finished his final round of chemotherapy last Monday, however, and his doctors say he’s cancer-free.
“They have all the confidence in the world that it’s gone,” he said.
Boston College’s counterparts in the ACC have shown their support for Herzlich by making contributions in his name to Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit organization that works with the college football community to raise awareness and fund research for rare diseases.
At UVa, the ‘Hoo Crew and Student Council started a fund-raiser — ‘Hoos for Herzlich — last month, with the goal of raising $9,494. (Herzlich’s jersey number at BC is 94.) A ceremonial check will be presented to Herzlich before the start of Saturday’s game at Scott Stadium.
“It’s really kind of incredible how the ACC has really come together as one unit, which has been awesome,” Herzlich said. “You don’t get that very much. People always talk about how the SEC is the best league, but you don’t get the type of camaraderie that I see in the ACC.
“That ACC really stepped up, and everybody took me under their wing and ran with it. As much as I appreciate the support, there are thousands of people across ACC country that are dealing with similar things that I am.”
The student-run fund-raiser at UVa has the support of the football team. The players are donating the per diem they would have received for their game-day dinners — $15 apiece — for a group contribution of about $1,500.
“I feel like there’s a situation every year where the team has to step outside themselves and step outside of football and see the bigger causes we can help,” said outside linebacker Aaron Clark, a graduate student who’s one of the Cavaliers’ captains.
“I think this is another opportunity to educate the younger players that we are trying to help our community as well as providing entertainment for them. I think that’s very important as you go through college, to be able to learn and educate yourself that there’s another world out there.”
Herzlich visited UVa several times when he was in high school, and Clark remembers him from those trips. Herzlich knows several other Cavaliers, too.
In Pennsylvania, he played lacrosse with Will Barker and football, on an all-star team, with Trey Womack.
“He’s a great guy. We keep in touch,” Herzlich said of Womack, a special-teams standout for the Wahoos.
At one point, Herzlich dreamed of playing lacrosse for Dom Starsia at UVa, but his development as a football player made that sport a better option.
He committed in June 2005 to play football for Virginia, but when his main recruiters, assistant coaches Al Golden and Mark D’Onofrio, left late that year for Temple, “I kind of re-thought things,” Herzlich recalled Monday.
Al Groh, asked Monday what he remembered about Herzlich as a prospect, said he was a “very rugged player, very physical player. Tall, lanky. You could really see what he was going to become, and he’s certainly lived up to that.”
As a true freshman in 2006, Herzlich played in all 13 games for BC. By his sophomore season he was a starter. As a junior, he was a finalist for the Butkus Award and thrice was named ACC player of the week. He intercepted six passes, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
“As all of you know, Mark Herzlich is an amazing football player,” Clark said. “He’s made a lot of big plays in his short career at BC.”
After undergoing radiation and chemo at home in the Philadelphia area, Herzlich returned to Boston College in September, and he’ll graduate next month with a bachelor’s in marketing. He plans to start pursuing an MBA in the spring.
When Herzlich was diagnosed with cancer, doctors told him that his career, in all likelihood, was over. Now they’re not so sure.
“I met with the doctor on Tuesday, and we looked at the MRIs again,” Herzlich said, “and he basically said, ‘Your leg can’t look any better than it does right now.'”
On Nov. 23, a rod will be placed through his femur to strengthen the bone, Herzlich said. Once he begins training again, doctors will evaluate his progress. If his leg is deemed strong enough, he might be cleared to play football again.
That such a comeback is even a possibility for Herzlich is “testament to his strength, his toughness and his mental ability to defeat the challenge that was put in front of him,” Clark said, “and we all take our hats off to him for that.”
To contribute on-line to ‘Hoos for Herzlich, visit this site.
Also, checks made out to Uplifting Athletes, with UVa in the memo line, can be sent to UVa Student Council, Newcomb Hall, Box 400705, Charlottesville, Va., 22904.