By TOM CANAVAN, AP Sports Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Mark Herzlich is turning out to be more than a feel-good story from the New York Giants' run to the Super Bowl last season.
The cancer survivor who beat the odds to make it to NFL is turning out to be a pretty good middle linebacker who has a shot at landing a starting job in his second season with the Giants.
Instead of fighting to make the roster, Herzlich is backing up Chase Blackburn at middle linebacker, working at the other linebacker spots and handling roles on special teams. He's an established NFL player and is answering more questions about football than his battle with a rare bone cancer that caused him to miss the 2009 season while a budding star at Boston College. At the time, he was a projected first-round draft pick.
"Once football starts and camp starts, it's all about football," Herzlich said Friday at the University at Albany. "I like talking much more about what I need to do to get better on the football field and how I am progressing.
"Physically, I am feeling much better this year."
Herzlich's mental approach to the game also is much better. After being bypassed in the 2011 NFL draft, he was signed by the Giants, right after the players and owners reached agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. The rookies had no Organized Team Activities or minicamps heading into the season and everything was conducted on the fly. Four months of studying the playbook was condensed to 30 days, and Herzlich admits there was some rust, coming off a season that was preceded by surgery and chemotherapy.
Things are clearly different now.
Herzlich looks more instinctive on the field. He had an interception last week of a tipped ball late in practice, and has played both the run and pass. Coach Tom Coughlin believes signing Herzlich as a free agent was a steal, and thought that from the start.
"We thought that last year might've been one of those years for him, and then he made our team, rather than our practice squad. That was a real plus," Coughlin said. "We really felt that with a year under his belt, and a chance to be in the offseason program, that this would be an opportunity for him to really come in and know what he's doing, and be the player that we all think he can be.
"So far, he hasn't disappointed."
It's interesting that Herzlich and Blackburn are competing for the same spot. They are friends and are very easy to get along with. Both also made the team as free agents, with Blackburn coming out of Akron. In their spare time, Herzlich, 24, doesn't hesitate to talk to Blackburn about football. The bottom line is playing the game, though, and Herzlich said starting against the Eagles and Saints late last year was a huge boost.
"Not only did it help my confidence, but it fueled my fire a little bit," he said. "I do know how awesome it is to play in prime time. We played on Sunday night against the Eagles, and then the Saints, and it makes me that much more hungry to get back out there."
Ironically, after Herzlich was injured against the Saints, the Giants re-signed Blackburn. The eight-year veteran started the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. If Herzlich wasn't hurt, he may have come to camp at the starting middle linebacker.
The injury changed that, of course.
"Well, you never want to watch a Super Bowl and be on the sideline, so that definitely motivated me to come back and be stronger and faster than I was the previous year," Herzlich said. "Watching the Super Bowl was an amazing feeling. I think watching the rest of the playoff games were tough for me because you want to be out there, you want to be playing in those big games. The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl, so you're there and you're loving it no matter what. Still, being on that field is a goal for me, and I think it's a goal for the team to get there again."
Herzlich changed his diet in the offseason to take off a little body fat. He also incorporated crossfit workouts — featuring powerlifting — to build endurance.
All along, he performed charity work with cancer groups, and did the little things in life, like calling or writing children to offer support. He also had his own cancer follow-up, which happen every six months. There are blood tests, CAT scans and MRIs of his legs.
"There is always a little bit of nervousness when you are going into the doctors' appointments," he said. "But I feel if something comes back, it would show as signs of pain and I really haven't had any pain and there has been nothing on the MRIs or any of the scans. So, probably what you get from the diagnoses are less chance of the cancer coming."
And that allows him to do what he wants more than anything: To play football.
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