Published January 27, 2011
MOBILE, Ala. – Mark Herzlich and Nate Irving got a whole season to answer questions about their health on the field.
Now, the two former Atlantic Coast Conference linebackers are addressing them verbally, too, in interviews with NFL team officials doing their due diligence on potential draft picks ahead of Saturday's Senior Bowl.
That's because Herzlich battled cancer and Irving survived a serious car crash. Both missed the 2009 season during ordeals that left them concerned about far more than football, but playing careers are their focus during this weeklong audition for NFL teams.
Before you ask, both say they're just fine now.
"Everybody asks me. Even the reporters ask me about my health," said Irving, a former North Carolina State player. "I mean, that's the top thing on everybody's list.
"I'm healthy. I played a complete college season and I'm down here participating even more so I feel pretty good."
Ditto for Herzlich, the 2008 ACC defensive player of the year and cancer survivor.
The former Boston College linebacker was diagnosed in 2008 with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, missed a season and then managed to come back and start every game.
Irving crashed his SUV in June 2009, sustaining injuries that included a collapsed lung and a compound fracture in his left leg. It's no wonder he thinks his performance last season answered any lingering questions NFL teams might have about his health.
Irving earned first-team All-ACC and third-team AP All-America honors after ranking sixth nationally in tackles for loss with 20.5. An NCAA-record eight of them came in the Wake Forest game.
Irving has a cross and the date of the one-car accident tattooed on the inside of his left forearm, and keeps a photo of his mangled SUV on his cell phone.
"I look it and think about it every single day," he said. "It just lets me know what I came through and that I'm here for a purpose."
Authorities said he apparently fell asleep at the wheel.
The sobering real-life experiences of Irving and Herzlich would seem to have answered at least two questions about both players: Are they tough and can they deal with adversity?
"Going through that and coming out, my mental toughness and stability — not too many people have been through that and been able to come back and play football, I don't think anybody has — that shows them that I can make it through a lot of things," Herzlich said.
Irving and Herzlich got to know each other at ACC media day and during the postseason awards circuit. They were co-winners of the Piccolo Award given to the league's "most courageous" player.
And now they're preparing for pro careers. Irving, who expects to be a middle linebacker in the NFL, will play on the South team while Herzlich is on the North.
"He's been through adversity and he's got an opportunity to come here and show people that he's healthy and able to play. I think that's a good thing," Lewis said. "It's like anything else, everybody has something to overcome and to overcome that is a great thing. And to get an opportunity to play in the National Football League."
Offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo is Herzlich's Senior Bowl and Boston College teammate, and has a dual interest in the cancer battle. Castonzo studied biochemistry and hopes to do cancer research.
"Just to see someone who was on top of the world kind of have it almost taken away, to see how he's been able to claw his way back and beat the cancer into submission ... And he's pursuing his dream," Castonzo said. "It just makes me wonder how many people didn't get that opportunity because they didn't have enough medical attention."
The 6-4, 250-pound Herzlich had 65 tackles and four interceptions last season. In 2008, he was a finalist for the Butkus Award after returning two of his six picks for touchdowns and recording 110 tackles.
When Herzlich and Irving say this NFL shot is like a dream, it doesn't even sound corny.
"It's a dream come true," the 6-1, 242-pound Irving said. "Just to be out here competing against most of the top seniors in the nation, it's a chance that not many people get to have."
Added Herzlich: "You really appreciate it. Every day's really a blessing right now. Being able to be here and be playing with all these great players, it's something that I only dreamed about a year ago. To actually be here is a dream come true."