Mark Herzlich stood before a throng of reporters Tuesday, soaking in the pinch-me moments of Super Bowl media day, but also appreciating the simple fact that he was able to stand on his own two legs.
The New York Giants rookie linebacker moved Twitter users this week, as he stepped off the plane in Indiana and tweeted: "2 yrs ago I was told I might never walk again. Just WALKED off plane in Indy to play in the #Superbowl. #TakeThatSh**Cancer."
In 2009, Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. It was isolated in his left leg, but the outlook was very dim for the young man who was, at the time, starring for the Boston College Eagles. Doctors weren't sure they could save his life, let alone his leg.
He underwent aggressive chemotherapy, a heavy dose of drugs dripping into his chest with tubes. Herzlich responded well and shrunk the tumour. He said when the sessions were the toughest, he would pop in a video of highlights from his 2008 college season, driving himself to get healthy again.
"After six hours of chemotherapy, you feel drained, and you feel like you can't move," Herzlich said. "I'd watch that video on repeat, seeing myself succeed. You have to see that mentally to get yourself through it."
The 24-year-old reflected Tuesday on the thoughts that would come to him during those sessions: memories of his upbringing in a family full of athletes, tennis and squash matches with his mom. He recalls thinking: "I want that with my own kids some day."
The physical nature of football brings Herzlich no pain that compares to what he faced with cancer. He experienced sleepless nights, thanks to stabbing pain in his lower leg and back, random jabs he says, "felt like knives."
After losing strength in the leg, he had a titanium rod inserted to support it. After the surgery, the pain was even worse as massage therapists worked aggressively to rid his leg of scar tissue.
Herzlich missed the 2009 U.S. college season, but was able to return in 2010, starting all 13 games. He went undrafted, but NFL teams came calling once the lockout ended. Now with the Giants, he is making the most of the opportunities he gets on the field.
"All I ever aimed to do was get back on the field at Boston College," Herzlich said. "But this? This is amazing"
Herzlich says Boston sports fans have been contacting him on Twitter since his arrival tweet last Monday, telling him they still hate his team, but they will be cheering for him.
He says the message was not preplanned. He was simply expressing how he felt. He didn't expect it to create such a buzz, but it's a pleasant surprise.
"I was very pleased that so many people saw the tweet – that's my mission," Herzlich said. "This week is all about football, but there are people out there right now going through cancer that may see it and think, 'Hey, he's doing it, so I can do it.' "