Herzlich fought to make it to the Super Bowl

658272.jpg

Herzlich fought to make it to the Super Bowl

INDIANAPOLIS -- Mark Herzlich would play the tape back over and over again, remembering how healthy and strong he had once been.

In his Pennsylvania Hospital room he watched video of himself making plays as a linebacker at Boston College. They were the plays that helped make him the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 -- athletic, dynamic, punishing.

He watched it during his worst days of suffering while being treated for Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. He watched it to remember who he could be. During his illness, in 2009, on the days in which he would undergo hours of chemotherapy after radiation sessions, he did not feel like the guy on his highlight tape.

Now, two years later, he's back on the field. A reserve linebacker for the Giants, he spoke on Media Day today about his fight against cancer and his journey to the Super Bowl.

"Playing football again was that goal, and that really pushed me," Herzlich said. "After six hours of chemotherapy, youre sitting there and your body just feels drained. You dont want to move, but I said, I am going to be playing football again in eight months, so I need to go and workout. I need to go ride a bike, get some cardio in. Thats what I did. I made a highlight video for myself from my 2008 season. The real bad days, I would put that in the chemo room and watch that kind of on repeat over and over again just to kind of see myself succeeding. Thats something that as you go through things, you learn that you have to see yourself succeed, whether mentally or actually in person. That can help you do it.

Herzlich returned to Boston College in 2010 to play his senior season. He went undrafted, but signed with the Giants before this season. On Tuesday he reflected on the long journey he's made in a relatively short amount of time. He stood on the Lucas Oil Stadium field, in uniform, sporting a mohawk, but the memories of the suffering he endured as a cancer patient were still fresh.

The physical pain was intense," he said. "The pain that I would get in my leg and in my lower back felt like knives being stabbed into my legs. It was just completely random. It didnt happen when I was running, necessarily. It didnt happen when I was just sitting down, necessarily. It would be on and off. I think that was one of the hardest parts about it. The pain coming after the surgery where I had to get the scar tissue kind of kneaded out with massage and stuff, that was probably the worst pain Ive ever been in because they had to actually tear the muscle off the bone and tear the scar tissue away. It was painful. I was screaming on the massage table.

When he stepped off the Giants plane in Indianapolis, the gravity of the moment hit him. He remembered all he went through, and he took to Twitter.

2 yrs ago I was told I might never walk again. Just WALKED off plane in Indy to play in The SuperBowl. TakeThatShtCancer, he tweeted.

The message quickly went viral. Though playing in a Super Bowl after beating cancer is sweet, inspiring others to fight the disease made it even more so for Herzlich.

"Obviously, this week is all about football and all about playing," he said. "But there are people out there who are going through cancer right now who see that and say, Hey, if he is doing it, I can do it.

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

bruins_ryan_spooner_120216.jpg

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.