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Mark Herzlich and Jon Lester, and The Fight Against Cancer

Mark Herzlich, the former Boston College standout linebacker and undrafted free agent, signed with the New York Giants this past Tuesday. With the finalization of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and the long-awaited end to the NFL Lockout on Monday, many players, like Herzlich, who did not hear their names called during the draft had their dreams come true as they etched a contract with a team. However, Herzlich’s path to the NFL took a detour two years ago, and he had to overcome perhaps the greatest obstacle in order to realize that dream.

In the spring of 2009, following an outstanding junior year for the Eagles, Herzlich was diagnosed with a rare and often fatal form of bone cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, which forced football to take a backseat to his recovery in 2009. Known for his intensity and determination when he plays, those same qualities played a vital role in his fight against cancer, and by October 2009, he was cancer free. After sitting out the remainder of that season, he returned to the gridiron for his senior campaign in 2010, recording another stellar season for Boston College.

After his junior season, in which he earned All-American honors as well as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Herzlich was predicted to be a first-round selection in that year’s draft, with many scouts and analysts placing him in the top 10. More than two years later, after battling cancer and finishing his college career, none of the NFL’s 32 teams selected Herzlich due to his prior illness, and he had to wait months for the lockout to end before landing a much-deserved spot in the NFL. When he signed with the Giants this week, the dream that nearly eluded him while he fought for his life had finally come to fruition.

Herzlich is not the only Boston sports star to have a promising sports career interrupted by cancer. In the summer of 2006, Jon Lester made his pitching debut for the Boston Red Sox, but was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma shortly thereafter when he began experiencing back problems. During the offseason, Lester underwent successful chemotherapy treatment and by July of 2007, the southpaw was back in a Red Sox uniform, helping Boston win the World Series. Since his debut, Lester has battled cancer, won a World Series, pitched a no-hitter, and emerged as one of the best pitchers in the game, twice being selected as an All-Star. Off the field, he is a husband and proud father and works with several charities to raise money for the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Jimmy Fund.

Despite their many accolades for their performances on the field, the awards and support they received in recognition of their fight and triumph against cancer seem to resonate with them and the community the most. Jon Lester and Mark Herzlich are only two people out of millions who have been diagnosed with this terrible disease. However, due to their notoriety, their stories receive spotlight and media attention, and it is precisely that notoriety that can generate inspiration for others who suffer as well as support from the community for cancer research. Cancer is a very prevalent disease, claiming 7.6 million lives in 2008 and affecting people of all walks of life around the world. Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends face the same battles that these two athletes fought. The lives of so many people and those close to them change when they are diagnosed with cancer, and in the ensuing battle against the disease, it is an incredible challenge to maintain hope.

Not all cancer patients are sports stars. They do not get to stand in front of thousands of screaming fans and deliver a devastating tackle or throw a 95 mile per hour fastball. Yet what they have in common with Mark Herzlich and Jon Lester is the arduous struggle against the same disease. Through their perseverance and determination, these two people beat cancer, surely a tougher opponent than they will ever face on the field. Their stories show that even those who can do what so many cannot from a physical standpoint are still vulnerable to the same illnesses. However, most importantly, they did not lose sight of their dreams even when cancer hindered their aspirations and physical abilities. Their stories, along with all of those who fight the long and painful battle against cancer, inspire us all, as they show you must continue to fight and hope. They remind us that even when the body may be weak, the mind and soul can persevere, enduring the greatest obstacles and fighting to keep our dreams alive.