People learn applicable life lessons playing the sport of football. No player hits harder than life, and it teaches a person to get back up after being knocked down. New York Giants’ linebacker, Mark Herzlich, endured his fair share of bone-crushing hits, whether as the deliverer or on the receiving end. However, five years ago, heading into his senior season at Boston College, he faced a hit that not many people are able to overcome: cancer.
Initially, there were only headlines and ESPN news packages that covered his story. There was no detailed and anecdotal manifestation of his war with cancer. “What It Takes: Fighting For My Life and My Love of the Game ” is Herzlich’s first-hand account of his redemptive journey from the chemo room to the football field, which culminated with a Super Bowl championship in 2012.
“What it Takes” is an enthralling story that leaves the reader at a fork in the road numerous times. Herzlich was left to make potential life altering decisions, but continuously rolled the dice with the deck stacked against him in order to return to the field. Football was more than just a sport or a lifestyle to him; it was his extrication. He noted how playing a position as cerebral as middle linebacker prepared him for the uphill battle with the most pernicious and insidious disease in the world. “In football, your body becomes your weapon. Your strength becomes your faith. Your toughness becomes your salvation,” he wrote.
Herzlich articulates every detail in a subjective and eloquent way that only a cancer martyr can tell.
Travelling back to 2009, Herzlich had just finished a historic season for the Boston College Eagles. He was named to the All-ACC First Team, AP All-American Team and was awarded the ACC Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Expectedly, he found his name at the top of most NFL Draft boards, but decided to return for his senior year due to grey-line possibilities about where he would be selected.
Heading into the 2010 season, Herzlich had the entire spotlight surrounding him, but during the preseason, he felt a nagging and recurring pain in his leg that left him incrementally drained every day. Eventually, Herzlich had no choice but to see an oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
It was there that he heard the one word no person ever wants to hear at an oncology department: tumor. This began a journey where the thought of playing football, or walking again, was thrown in the air. Herzlich was not sure he would even survive the disease. He clearly denotes his trepidation throughout the novel, and how at one point, he risked his own survival to return to football. In his book, he indulged the reader with the suffering he underwent during chemotherapy. His diet consisted of Cytoxan, Adriamycin, Vincristine and Ipex. Simple tasks like walking to the bathroom became a draining, step-by-step process.
Herzlich wrote how he felt his entire world shrinking around him as a cancer patient. Eventually, the tumor receded and Herzlich was given a glimmer of hope. The climax was when he was invited to ESPN’s College Gameday to deliver the results. In a moment of pure elation, Herzlich told all the BC fans donning their “Beat Cancer” shirts that his doctor told him he was 99 percent sure the cancer was completely gone. Herzlich’s duel with cancer was a transformative event that brought out a level of resolve that he never had before. He applied his determination in the oncologist’s department to the football field and weight room, and ended up returning to the field for Boston College. However, his cancer required insertion of a metal rod in his leg, and this hindered his speed and agility. This shooed away pro scouts and left Herzlich as an undrafted free agent.
The New York Giants looked past his handicap, and took a chance on him. Herzlich earned a spot on the team through training camp, and started his first NFL game against his favorite team, the Philadelphia Eagles. However, the culmination of his first year was summed up in one succinct, powerful tweet: “2 years ago I was told I might never walk again. Just WALKED off the plane in Indy for the #Superbowl. #Takethatcancer.”
Herzlich may have not played in the game, but his Super Bowl ring is the invigorating climax of his joust. His victory over cancer is only half the battle and his persistence was the hidden medicine to vanquish cancer. Told with candor and raw emotion, “What It Takes” is an emotional adventure that brings out the audience’s inner linebacker in the pursuit of aspirations and strength, regardless of resistance.