Mark Herzlich was in the midst of fighting his own cancer battle when he first met Eric Berry.
It was December 2009, at the Lott IMPACT Trophy ceremony at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach, Calif. Berry, along with three other players, was up for the award, which honors on-field performance and personal character among defensive players.
Herzlich, meanwhile, was an honorary recipient of the award that year because of his well-publicized battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
“I was going through chemo at the time, had a bald head and no eyebrows,” Herzlich, a linebacker for the New York Giants, recalls. “I remember he was very nice. We talked a lot and he gave me a lot of encouragement.
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“I decided then that I was always going to follow his career.”
Herzlich returned to the field for Boston College in 2010 and has stuck with the Giants after being an undrafted free agent in 2011, but he’s lived up to his word. He kept an eye on Berry, who made three Pro Bowls in his first four seasons with the Chiefs, and was following his 2014 season a bit until he saw the news of Berry’s cancer scare in mid-November.
“When I saw on Twitter, I said ’What?’” Herzlich said. “I was surprised, but cancer is something that affects everyone.”
Now that Berry, 25, has officially been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma — the Chiefs announced it Monday — the hard work begins, Herzlich said. Berry is slated to begin chemotherapy soon, which Herzlich remembers being a tiring, grueling process, physically and mentally.
“The tough part is when you finally feel like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this.’ For me, that came at one point during my treatment,” Herzlich said. “I had strong resolve and said, ‘Man, nothing’s gonna slow me down.’ But chemo after chemo after radiation, I started to feel like, ‘Man, I don’t know.’”
Herzlich, the reigning ACC defensive player of the year when he was diagnosed in March 2009, said dealing with feelings of self-doubt certainly isn’t high-level athletes.
“As soon as that came in my mind, I had to lean on others and that was hard,” Herzlich said. “I was so used to being the rock for others, but when I became vulnerable others had to take up the slack and take the reigns and say, ‘I’ll be here for you, you don’t have to act like everything is OK.’ I had to deal with the realization that I needed people around me to help.”
Herzlich said this is where family plays a big role. Berry, who is from Fairburn, Ga., is being treated at the nearby Emory University School of Medicine so he can draw upon the support of his mother, Carol, and father, James.
That was great news to Herzlich, who said the importance of having loved ones around when someone is battling cancer is immeasurable. He did his chemo treatments in his hometown of Philadelphia, and his parents — particularly his mother, Barbara — were invaluable. She was the one who convinced him that something was wrong when he started having unexplainable pain before his diagnosis.
“My mom, she was like a lioness,” Herzlich said. “When I was hurting and I didn’t know what was wrong, she was like, ‘I’ve got to find out what’s wrong with my baby.’ If she hadn’t done that. … I mean, she saved me life because she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for answer.”
Herzlich said that once he got checked out and was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, his mother then kicked it into overdrive.
“She said, ‘I’m going to find you the best doctors, organize your medicine, make sure you go to all the treatments,’” Herzlich said. “You have to take all these different pills, and if you don’t have someone to help with that, it’s overload.”
Herzlich also has fond memories of people in his neighborhood dropping off food daily after his chemo treatments.
“On the back porch, there would be a cooler with food,” Herzlich said. ’We were able to focus on getting me better instead of worrying where the food would come from.”
Herzlich said the warmth and support he received from his family during the initial chemo treatments made such a mark that when he tried to return to Boston College in the fall of 2009 for classes (he also would receive chemo treatment there), he felt a noticeable difference in how he felt.
“I got up there, I went to chemo and back to the dorm, and I didn’t have mother and brother with me and started to feel worse and worse,” Herzlich said. “It’s amazing how the love of your family helps. I did one week of treatment up in Boston and said, ‘You know what? I’m going back home for my treatments.’”
Herzlich made it clear the decision had nothing to do with the nurses or doctors in Boston.
“It’s like when you’ve got fever or flu when you’re 9 years old, and you want to stay in the bedroom and have mom bring you soup,” he said. “It’s good that Eric is going to be with his family. I met them. They’re outstanding people, and he’s in good hands.”
Herzlich added that he knows one thing Berry isn’t wanting for is support, particularly within the Chiefs’ organization, which has rallied around him the last two weeks.
The Chiefs’ game-time jackets now include a patch with Berry’s number, and, during pregame warmups, many players have been wearing white T-shirts with the slogan, “Be Bold. Be Brave. Be Berry” across the front and Berry’s name and number on the back.
That, in addition to Berry’s good nature and familial support, are the primary reasons Herzlich is optimistic about Berry’s prognosis. Herzlich sent Berry a text message after the news first broke a few weeks ago, his way of returning the words of encouragement Berry extended toward him when they met at the Lott ceremony that December five years ago.
“That’s what football is about, that’s what teammates are about,” Herzlich said. “You’ll see it’s not just Chiefs that are doing it. It’s sense of community. We know different guys from different teams, and even if you don’t know him personally, you’ve got to root for him.”