EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Mark Herzlich's incredible story added another chapter today when the NFL announced that he is the Giants' 2017 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee.
The Man of the Year Award is presented by Nationwide. It is named for Chicago Bears Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, Walter Payton, who died in 1999.
Although he has been on injured reserve all season, Herzlich is an ideal candidate for the award, which recognizes an NFL player for outstanding community service activities off the field as well as excellence on the field.
"It's an honor," Herzlich said. "It's really awesome to be recognized for the things that my wife (Danielle) and I do off the field, and it's been why I think I have been able to play football for so long. I don't believe God gave me these talents to just play football. It's been to have a platform to be able to make a lot of change in society. Over the past five, six years, it's transitioned a little bit from purely just helping kids with cancer and cancer research development to also helping create a new generation of manhood, in order to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault in America. We've been doing it for about five years now and it's weird how tragedies create opportunities, too."
Each of the 32 teams has a Man of the Year who is eligible to win the league award. Last year, Giants quarterback Eli Manning was named a co-winner – with Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald - of the Man of the Year Award. He was the first Giants player to receive the award in its 47-year history.
The 2017 finalists will be announced next month. The winner will be announced during NFL Honors, a two-hour primetime awards special to air nationally on Feb. 3, the eve of Super Bowl LII. NFL Honors will be taped earlier that evening at the Cyrus Northrop Memorial Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Herzlich has been with the Giants since 2011, when he joined the team as a free agent linebacker from Boston College. He has spent this season on injured reserve after suffering a stinger in training camp.
In 2008, Herzlich was an All-American linebacker and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. But following that season, Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. He was told by his doctors that he had as low as a 10% chance of survival and that his playing days were over.
Herzlich underwent six months of chemotherapy, 50 rounds of radiation and had a titanium rod placed in his femur. While sitting in a hospital bed undergoing treatment, he reflected on the things that were most important to him. He found solace in his family, in his closest friends, and in the internal fight he possessed to beat that horrible disease and return to playing the sport he loved. Through prayer, the skill of the doctors, and ongoing global research into cancer, he beat Ewing's Sarcoma.
Sixteen months after he was diagnosed, Herzlich was back playing linebacker for Boston College. In another 16 months, he was a member of the 2011 New York Giants team that won Super Bowl XLVI. Now in his seventh season, Herzlich has played in 88 regular-season games with 17 starts. His career totals include 121 tackles (84 solo), 1.0 sack, three passes defensed, one forced fumble, and 53 tackles and two fumble recoveries on special teams.
From his first days with the Giants, Herzlich immersed himself in community and charitable causes and made frequent hospital visits to spend time with children afflicted with cancer.
"I knew I was going to be doing things off the field," Herzlich said, "honestly, mostly because I had been doing stuff already at B.C., and the fact that I went through my cancer treatment as a senior and started to do some foundation work then. I started a charity golf tournament as a senior in college. I knew I would be continuing what I was doing. Here in the beginning, it was like I just needed to make this team. It was awesome because the Giants already had a foundation set up, so all you had to do was say I want to get involved and then they had it all set up for you. It transitioned into just saying yes to a bunch of things with the Giants and with the (Tom Coughlin) Jay Fund at the time to meeting people and feeling what our calling was in society."
Herzlich candidly admits he wouldn't be as involved had he never contracted cancer.
"I wish I could say I would have," Herzlich said. "A reporter asked me when I was going through treatments, I still wasn't out of the woods, and they asked me, 'What is the silver lining in all of this?' At the time, I was like, 'What are you talking about? There is no silver lining in all of this. This is not only threatening my life, but also my ability to play football again and first round draft status, and all of the money and fame that would come with that.' That's what I was focused on.
"But the silver lining that came out of it was this responsibility that I felt after I was healthy again to respond to letters that I've gotten from people who were just encouraged by my battle. Not necessarily my success, but just the battle itself. It was really after I started telling my story and seeing the reaction that children had, that people had, where they gained hope. It wasn't about me feeling any pride about telling the story, it was just seeing the hope that they had that I knew that it was something that I wanted to do. So, if it wasn't for that, I don't think I would have necessarily been on the same path of, first of all, service, but Christianity, which also has developed my service even more."
At Boston College, Herzlich partnered with Uplifting Athletes, an organization that raises money for rare diseases by empowering college athletes. In addition to his golf tournament, he hosted a "Lift for Life," where he and his teammates raised $30,000 in 30 days for Ewing's Sarcoma research. In the nine years since his cancer diagnosis, Mark has visited countless hospitals and has mentored hundreds of patients through letters and phone calls.
"I would say I get two or three requests a week (to visit children in hospitals)," Herzlich said. "Obviously, I'm not able to see everybody, but I am usually able to write an email, or they will reach out to me on Instagram or Twitter, and I'm able to write back on that. The good thing is that there are so many hospitals around here that I am able to see a bunch of kids at the hospitals or see them after games. Pretty much after every game there is someone there that I can talk to. So it's been a real blessing to be able to be in this position and each step that I take forward, I'm able to give back to people who I can bring right along with me."
Herzlich shared that story of hope in his book, "Mark Herzlich: Fighting for My Life and My Love of the Game." He is a member of the advisory board of The Jay Fund, which helps families tackle childhood cancer by providing comprehensive financial, emotional and practical support. He has raised money for multiple research grants to The American Cancer Society and serves on the American Cancer Society's Athlete Council. He has hosted many Make A Wish families and has made surprise school visits to encourage students who are going through treatments.
In May of 2015, he married his college sweetheart Danielle, who this week was promoted to captain in the U.S. Army New Jersey National Guard. He and Danielle, who was a victim of physical, mental and emotional abuse as a child, have made it their mission to end relationship violence. The Herzlichs are national board members, fundraisers, and constant volunteers for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to create a world free of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. They are also national board members for A Call to Men, which works to create a world where all men and boys are loving and respectful and all women and girls are valued and safe.
The Herzlichs travel throughout the country, speaking to colleges, Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams and other organizations, providing education about healthy relationships and healthy manhood. In partnership with the Joyful Heart Foundation and the NFL, the Herzlichs, along with other NFL players and wives, were featured in the "No More" social responsibility campaign. In 2015, The Joyful Heart Foundation and USA Network hosted a 14-hour Law and Order: SVU NO MORE Excuses marathon, which encouraged viewers to get off the sidelines to help end domestic violence. Mark was also featured in a New York Times article, "In a Man's Game Mark Herzlich is Standing up For Women", which reached an audience of over 82 million people. They have organized flag football games with professional athletes called "Joy Bowl", and have raised over $140,000 from those for the Joyful Heart Foundation. Most recently, the Herzlichs have worked in conjunction with the Joyful Heart Foundation to end the rape kit backlog that is plaguing our country, helping to uncover 175,000 untested rape kits; to change rape kit laws in 14 states; and to secure $45 million in federal funding for nationwide rape kit law reform.
Herzlich has always been supportive of the Giants' and the NFL's most important community programs. He is the Giants spokesman for the United Way Character Playbook initiative. Herzlich attended Eagle Academy in the Bronx to launch the online character-building program with the students, followed by an assembly where he spoke about how his character helped him get to the NFL. He has hosted webcasts with local Character Playbook schools to discuss decision making and healthy relationships. He is an ambassador for Fuel Up to Play 60 program, which supports breakfast in schools and an active lifestyle for kids. He hosted the 2017 NBC4 and Telemundo 47 Health and Fitness Expo Presented by Quest Diagnostics at MetLife Stadium – a free family health fair. Mark joined teammates to participate in a conversation with Senator Cory Booker and the non-profit RISE regarding current social justice issues in our nation. He has been the Giants' player representative at the NFL's recent meetings between Commissioner Roger Goodell, players and owners regarding social justice and racial equality. He participated in a ride-a-long with the Newark Police Department's Bronze Shields and Mayor Ras Baraka to learn about the department's community efforts and the challenges of policing. At that event, he joined his Giants teammates as they spoke to the students, encouraging them to be leaders in their community, and surprised both Weequahic High School and Newark Central High School with $10,000 football equipment grants.