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Herzlich set for NFL draft after bout with cancer

Mark Herzlich will attend the NFL draft with 24 of the nation's top players. Most probably will be first-round choices.

The Boston College linebacker could have been one.

Then he was diagnosed with cancer.

Now, 19 months after learning that he was cancer-free, he'll be grateful no matter where he's picked in the three-day draft starting Thursday night.

"I definitely don't anticipate it being anywhere near as high as it would have been," Herzlich said Tuesday, "but wherever my name is called, I'm going to be thankful."

In 2008, he was chosen as the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year. In the offseason, he learned he had Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Doctors said he might never play football again.

For a few hours, he said, he dealt with the "Why me?" question.

Then he looked ahead.

"You have to look past that and see that you have something that you want to live for, you want to beat the cancer for," Herzlich said in a telephone interview. "That was my focus the whole time. You can't really look back over your shoulder and think what could have been. You have to kind of just push forward and see where I'm going to get to."

He had a tumor removed from his left leg and a titanium rod inserted. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Playing in 2009 was out of the question.

But on Oct. 3 that season, four days after learning he was cancer-free, he fired up the crowd with pregame remarks over the public address system and waved a yellow towel on the sideline during the game. The Eagles beat Florida State 28-21 to improve to 4-1.

Herzlich was back in uniform for the 2010 opener on Sept. 4, a 38-20 home win over Weber State. He led his team out of the tunnel as it took the field and made five tackles even though a stress fracture in his right foot forced him to miss part of summer camp.

He felt stronger as the season progressed even though his total tackles dropped from 110 in 2008 to 65.

"I got a lot better, a lot more into my body," he said. "The acceleration was a lot better. The coordination got back, and then just making my body move how my brain knows it can move, and that was something that took a little while to get back. But, definitely, toward the end of the season I was able to get that in sync again."

Still, he had to convince NFL teams that were scouting players at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in late February.

"I had a lot of letters and notes from my doctors just explaining the process so the (teams') medical staffs would know," he said. "One of the biggest things is that people got to actually see me in the flesh and see that I'm not sick. I'm not weak. I'm not having any effects from the chemo or cancer. That's something that people would want to know, and when they saw that, that helped."

But he has no idea when he'll be drafted. He may have to wait until the third day on Saturday when rounds 4 through 7 will be held.

"I won't be saying, 'you should have picked me higher,' " Herzlich said. "It's just reassuring them of their pick that you should be glad and happy that you picked me at all, and give that team all you can give."

When he was diagnosed, he still hoped to play in the NFL. So during the period in which he had chemotherapy, he worked out to keep his upper body strong and rode a bike and swam to maintain his cardiovascular condition because he couldn't run.

But he wondered whether an NFL team would take a chance on him.

"I really kind of figured it would be too scary for a team to take me," Herzlich said, "but I've been able to come back and feel great and have doctors tell me that everything is fine, playing in the NFL is not going to be a risk. And so, with their confidence, that's where I'm moving forward"

The health prognosis is good.

When he was pronounced cancer-free, the chance of it coming back was 3 percent, he said. In May 2014, it will be five years since his diagnosis and "once you get to that point then you basically have the same chance of getting cancer as anyone."

So he'll be at the draft on Thursday when the first round will be held.

"I've made a lot of friends through the combine and the Senior Bowl," Herzlich said. "To be able to sit there with them and hear their name get called, that's going to be cool. I'll be able to cheer them on."

Sometime after that, perhaps as early as the third round on Friday night, he expects to hear his own name called.

"I think at the exact moment I'm going to be excited, I'm going to be relieved," he said, "and I think probably a couple of days later is when I'll really realize I am now an NFL football player and how far I've come to get there."