Best story in Giants camp is a cancer survivor

Tom Coughlin got a new contract extension, Eli Manning made an appearance at training camp, and there was talk Plaxico Burress could end up back with the New York Giants.

The best news out of the Meadowlands on Wednesday, though, came from an undrafted rookie just trying to land a spot on the regular season roster.

Mark Herzlich passed yet another physical. The titanium rod in his left leg didn't even give the doctors pause.

Now there's nothing left to do but play football.

"I'm excited about what lies ahead," he said.

That hardly seemed possible just a little over two years ago when the Boston College standout had to seek medical help for the awful pain in his leg. The test results were disturbing.

He had a rare form of bone cancer, the doctor said. Ewing's sarcoma. He had a good chance of living, he was told, but he would never again play the sport he loved so much.

The doctor knew his medicine. But he didn't know Mark Herzlich.

"The first questions in my head were 'Why me?' but that lasted only a few hours," Herzlich said in a phone interview. "I decided, like everything in my life, I would have to tackle it head on. I was determined to not only do everything I could to get rid of the disease but to play football again."

The surgery came first, with doctors inserting a 12-inch titanium rod that runs from Herzlich's hip to just above his knee. Then came seven months of chemotherapy and another five weeks of radiation to help make sure the cancer was gone.

And, finally, the long rehabilitation back to where he could play linebacker his senior year at Boston College. One final season that would prove to everyone - himself included - that he had beaten it.

"Just being healthy again wasn't a win in my book," Herzlich said. "I equated football and running out of the tunnel with my team as beating cancer. Getting back to where I was would be the ultimate win."

He lost a season to the cancer, but Herzlich finally ran out of the tunnel last year, crossing over the white line onto the field. He wasn't quite the player who was considered a potential top 10 draft pick after being named ACC defensive player of the year in 2008 - but he was playing again. As the season went on, he began to play better, finishing strong and regaining much of the fluidity that made him such a feared linebacker before he got sick.

That was enough to get Herzlich an invitation to NFL draft in New York. It wasn't enough to convince any of the 32 teams to call his name.

Several teams, though, were interested in signing Herzlich as a free agent rookie. Then Giants co-owner John Mara - a fellow BC grad who had watched Herzlich play - said he "suggested" to team executives that the linebacker was someone they could not afford to overlook.

"He had a monster junior year before he got sick and we just thought he was worth a shot," Mara said. "Anyone who has the strength and mental toughness to overcome what he has is worth taking a chance on."

The 23-year-old understands he has to prove himself to the Giants, no matter how highly the boss regards him. He knows how hard it is for undrafted rookies to make NFL teams.

But he's been up against a tougher opponent. He's beaten longer odds.

"Everybody is under a microscope, especially undrafted free agents," Herzlich said. "Being undrafted means the league had 254 options to take you and they didn't. Now I've got to prove I'm better than those 254 and prove that I deserve one of the spots on the team. I have a lot of confidence in myself to do that."

The paycheck will have less zeroes than the one he would have made as a first-round draft pick. But Herzlich is playing football again, and to him that's just as important as any riches the sport might provide.

He doesn't think about the titanium rod in his leg when he is on the field, doesn't dwell on the fact he had cancer. Off the field, he wants to be a role model and he wants people to know they, too, can overcome adversity.

"I tell people all the time I'm proud to be a cancer survivor. To eliminate that would not do justice to myself or to what I went through," Herzlich said. "It's part of who I am."

Right now is Mark Herzlich of the New York Giants.

Cancer survivor and football player.

____(equals)

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg