BRADENTON, Fla. — Many in the NFL believe that a player shows his true character when he is facing adversity. If that's true, two Boston College teammates are going to pass the character test for NFL decision-makers with flying colors when it comes to the draft.
Mark Herzlich and Anthony Castonzo have taken on cancer in different ways, and both are winning the fight.
Herzlich was the 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year after a massive junior season for the Eagles. The 6-foot-4 linebacker had 110 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 6 interceptions, 2-1/2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. Many around the NFL viewed Herzlich as a potential top-10 draft pick.
Then adversity hit. Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. His entire 2009 season was lost as Herzlich battled to stay alive.
"It kind of proved that it could take anybody," said Castonzo, his close friend and an offensive tackle. "Mark was on top of the world. He was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. All of sudden we don't know if he is going to live, let alone play football. It was kind of amazing that he was able to take that and fight right through it. It seems like he's never had it now."
Castonzo and his teammates refused to let Herzlich fight alone. They organized a charity to help support research on Ewing's sarcoma.
"That was the biggest thing that got me so emotional," Herzlich said. "I was at home doing my thing, trying to beat the cancer, but they were up there at Boston College doing workouts for cancer research to help me get better."
After being off the gridiron for a year, Herzlich inspired the college football world by beating the cancer and returning to the field for the 2010 season. He played in every game and recorded 65 tackles with 3-1/2 for a loss, 4 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles.
Herzlich struggled at first — largely because his cancer treatment prevented him from participating in summer camps. He also had a metal rod inserted in his left leg after it was weakened by the combination of cancer and radiation treatment.
"He is going to be right back to where he was because he is going to continue to work," Castonzo says. "When he came back from cancer, they didn't know if he was going to live or die, and now he isn't just going to get in the NFL, he wants to be the best. Just to come back from that and have the goal to be the best is impressive to me."
Herzlich's inspiration has provided Castonzo with some lofty goals for his future, too. Castonzo, who majored in chemical biology and earned a reputation for being one of the smartest players to come through Boston College in recent years, said he wants to get further involved in cancer research, whether he does it by setting up a foundation or doing the research himself.
"I understand that cancer is a dynamic thing that changes all the time, and it is going to be very hard to find a cure, but I'd like to make some significant strides to make a mark on helping people," Castonzo said. "The way that Mark was able to come back and pursue his dream, I feel like everybody deserves that opportunity."
Herzlich believes in Castonzo's ability to help fight cancer, and said it was Castonzo who helped him the most.
"Anthony is one of those guys that we always knew was intelligent and we knew he was a bio-chem guy," Herzlich said. "I think he knew more about the cancer stuff than I did, to be honest. So it was good to have a sounding board."
Herzlich offered some perspective on how far Castonzo has come along as a player since arriving in Chestnut Hill.
"I was his host when he was coming out of high school," Herzlich said. "He was 6-foot-7, 245 pounds — a tall, skinny, lanky kid. They said he was pretty good, but he didn't look like an offensive tackle."
Whether he had the body for it or not, Castonzo started his first contest at offensive tackle as a freshman and never missed a game during his four years. Now on the plus side of 300 pounds, Castonzo has steadily risen up draft boards, and many believe he will be a top-15 pick in April.
"I've never seen somebody gain 60 pounds in three years," Herzlich said. "It was his dedication, which is why we all voted him team captain, and why he played at such a high level all four years. To be a starter at left tackle at O-line U. for four years — that doesn't happen too often, and that is why he will hopefully go in the top 10."
Since their senior season ended, the duo has been hard at work at the Athletic & Personal Development program in Bradenton, Fla., preparing for draft day.
Both players are working hard and taking advantage of round-the-clock training at the first-class facility. Castonzo and Herzlich start working with the staff at 6 a.m. and go for 12 hours straight with long weight room sessions, field work, film study and mental preparation.
"They're great; they're like brothers," IMG trainer Jeff Dillman says. "When one of them is going bad, the other one pushes and tells him he's soft. I couldn't imagine one being here without the other. They are just like each other. They are the same person."
Every day they see more of the pre-cancer Herzlich coming back.
"Mark was in a unique situation with everything he's battled," said Trevor Moawad, the Director of Athletic & Personal Development program. "I was talking with Howard Tippett, our NFL position coach that coached in the NFL for 25 years. He said as the program continues to go on, he sees more and more of the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
"I think you'll see as he continues to distance himself from the illness and gets healthier and healthier, he's going to be everything he was before the illness."
Herzlich has further confirmation that the cancer is behind him.
"We took him to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and he got a perfectly clean bill of health," Moawad said. "The [Tampa Bay] Bucs doctor came down and looked at him and gave him a perfectly clean bill of health, so he knows he's healthy."
The comfort of knowing that the cancer is behind him has Herzlich more ready than ever for the challenges ahead.
"From a mental perspective, he's excited," Moawad says. "I think he's got two mind-sets. One is to be extremely grateful for the opportunity. The other mind-set is that he knows he's a great football player. You want teams to focus less on the story and more on what he's capable of."
Herzlich feels he has grown a lot in his time at IMG and during his return to football last year.
"Before the illness I was riding a wave of success," Herzlich said. "I always wanted to be the best I could be. Even after the 2008 season I didn't think I was there. I still don't think I'm there. I think everybody can improve."
Having a close friend and confidant close by helps, too.
"I don't think either of us would have taken reps off regardless, but I think it is each of us doing that extra rep and it is not doing just what is on the sheet," Herzlich said. "After we finished our workout, it's ‘Let's go do more abs. Let's do some biceps.' I like him. He's a fun guy to work out with."
After the duo enters the NFL, Herzlich still will serve as inspiration for Castonzo.
"I was joking with him last night that he faked having cancer … because he beat it so easily," Costanzo said. "It was a testament to who he is and what he is about. To zip right through it and get back to playing and pursuing his dream of playing in the NFL, it is very inspirational to all of us."