BOSTON – "Obviously," Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich said, pausing for a little laugh that emphasized just how obvious it was, "I've dealt with a lot worse than a foot fracture."
The 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year, Herzlich missed all of last season after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Ewing's Sarcoma. After radiation and chemotherapy, doctors pronounced him cancer-free last fall and cleared him to return to football.
But before he could get back on the field, he sustained a stress fracture in his right foot that has delayed the start of his senior season once again. The Eagles returned to practice this week, and Herzlich was again limited to meetings, watching videotape and standing on the sideline offering encouragement and suggestions for his teammates.
"It's frustrating," he told reporters at BC media day on Friday. "But it's just kind of another thing to hurdle."
With a full head of curly blond hair, untied sneakers and no sign of a limp from the foot injury, Herzlich said he was eager to get back to practice and perhaps even more eager to be answering questions about football instead of medicine. But there are few questions about his football ability: in 2008 he led the Eagles with 81 tackles, intercepted six passes — the most in the nation for a linebacker— and was a Butkus Award finalist
"I don't have to prove myself" to the coaching staff, he said. "I just have to give them the confidence that I'm healthy."
Herzlich is hoping that the break will help him be a better player: He spent some of his time off isolating areas for improvement, and it also helped remind him about how much he liked playing football.
"Once it comes down to all the things that can be taken away from you, that's when I realized I wanted football to be a part of my life," he said. "But I'm not going to settle for, 'OK, I got back on the field.' I'm going to push myself to get better and be the best I can."
Technically considered day-to-day, Herzlich said he expected to return soon — and certainly in time for the Sept. 4 opener against Weber State. But he knows that the coaches will be careful.
"There's no jumping into it too soon," he said. "We're going to be overly cautious with it and make sure that it gets fully healed because the last thing we want to do is come back too soon and have it kind of linger throughout the season."
When he does return, he will join ACC defensive rookie of the year Luke Kuechly and returning starter Mike Morrissey in a linebacking group that has been the backbone of the BC defense. Quarterback Dave Shinskie, a 26-year-old sophomore and former minor league baseball player, has another typically strong BC offensive line blocking for him and another year of football experience.
"I was more of a baseball player last year," said Shinskie, who pitched five years in the Toronto Blue Jays system. "This year, I feel a lot more comfortable. Even though I'm 26 years old, I still have a long way to go."
Frank Spaziani is in his second year since taking over when Jeff Jagodzinski was fired for seeking an NFL job. After two straight appearances in the ACC title game, last season was damage control: The Eagles were picked to finish last in the ACC's Atlantic Division, but they went 8-5 and finished second in the division before losing to Southern Cal in the Emerald Bowl.