By Peter Schwartz
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Mark Herzlich remembers May 14, 2009, like it was yesterday.
That was the day that he announced that he had been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. It would turn his world upside down and force him to miss his senior season at Boston College.
“It’s devastating,” Herzlich said. “It’s an emotional free fall and also a physical free fall. You go from literally one day thinking you’re healthy to the next day finding out that you have a disease that could possibly kill you. There are no real words that you can put to that feeling besides a feeling of falling.”
But instead of actually falling, Herzlich persevered. He announced on Sept. 29, 2009, that he was cancer-free and he would return to play for Boston College in 2010. He went on to sign as a rookie free agent with the Giants in 2011.
Now heading into his seventh NFL season, all with the Giants, Herzlich continues to give back to the community. He will be the national ambassador for the third annual Great Cycle Challenge USA, a monthlong event in June that is expected to have 30,000 riders with the goal of raising $4 million to benefit the Children’s Cancer Research Fund.
“The goal is to hit that and surpass it,” Herzlich said. “It’s something that has spread like wildfire. It’s something that’s perfect for this time of year to get people around the country outside. It’s a really innovative event. It’s a month where you can also reflect on people in your lives that have been affected by cancer and really do this for them.”
Here’s how it works.
Interested riders go to GreatCycleChallenge.com to register by downloading the free mobile app to track miles, raise funds and share the experience. Every mile that you ride on either a bicycle, stationary bike, or a unicycle during the month of June will not only improve your health, but it also helps to fund childhood cancer research.
Riders are encouraged to set their own personal goals and then raise money by recruiting family and friends to pledge donations. Over the first two events, there were almost 40,000 riders covering all 50 states that pedaled 3 million miles, raising more than $4.7 million.
It’s an event and a cause that certainly hits home for Herzlich.
“I was diagnosed at 21 years old,” said Herzlich, who has switched to uniform No. 44 with the Giants this season so that he can be eligible to line up as a tight end and catch some passes. “The doctors basically told me that if it had been 10 years ago I wouldn’t have survived, but (it is) funding like this that advances the research of medicine.”
The Great Cycle Challenge actually begins on Wednesday with a kickoff event in Times Square that will honor the top 2,500 riders on the big screen. Herzlich will be on hand to greet the participants. It’s also an opportunity for riders to meet other riders, combine forces to establish teams, and help make this year’s event the biggest to date.
The fundraising is vital, but it’s also important to realize and understand the cause.
“Yes, you’re giving money and, yes, you’re raising money, but you’re also doing it while constantly remembering why,” Herzlich said.
Last year’s Great Cycle Challenge raised money to support cancer research at some of the top children’s hospitals across the United States, such as Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Herzlich is taking part in this event as the Giants are going through their offseason program. Before he knows it, Herzlich will be going to his seventh training camp with Big Blue. There was a time when he was unsure if he was going to survive, much less play football. So he’s more than happy to give back and ensure that others have the same chances that he did.
“This is beyond my wildest imagination of what the end was going to be like,” Herzlich said. “It’s amazing and it’s a blessing. There are certain reasons why things happen and there’s never a reason why things have to be on both sides of that coin. But for me, I was able to fight through the diagnosis and fight through the treatment and come back.”
Herzlich’s hard work certainly paid off as he became a Super Bowl champion during his rookie season with Big Blue. Then came four years of missing the playoffs before last season’s 11-5 season and playoff berth. The Giants lost to the Packers in the Wild Card round, but the first season under head coach Ben McAdoo proved to be a smashing success.
The 2017 regular season opener is still a ways away. The Giants will visit the Cowboys on Sunday night Sept. 10, but the excitement is already there.
“I cannot wait,” Herzlich said. “It feels like it can’t come soon enough. I am excited. We have some good leadership with coach McAdoo. The sky is the limit for us.”
But before that opportunity for success comes on the football field, there’s a chance for Herzlich and thousands of riders to raise money for pediatric cancer research in the Great Cycle Challenge USA. It’s important for everyone to get some exercise, but there’s even more meaning when you can combine that with raising money for a very worthwhile cause.
Mark Herzlich is living proof that there is hope after being diagnosed with cancer. Now cancer-free and a veteran NFL player, Herzlich is doing what he can to make sure that there are plenty of other success stories.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @MarkHerzlich and the Great Cycle Challenge @GreatCycleC