Mark Herzlich was coming off an incredible 2008 season, having emerged as one of the nation's best college linebackers. It seemed all he had to worry about was whether he should turn pro or return to Boston College.
Herzlich stayed in school. He didn't know what a great support system he'd just put in place.
This past spring, Herzlich, projected by many to be an early-round NFL draft pick if he had left school early, was back in Wayne, Pa., when he felt pain in his leg. He went for tests, then a biopsy: It was Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer found in bone or soft tissue.
It shook Herzlich -- for an afternoon.
Then he knew he had to fight. Herzlich says that battle now has him "99 percent" cancer-free and close to returning to full workouts later this fall.
"It feels like forever ago," the 22-year-old said this week as his Eagles teammates prepared to host Florida State on Saturday. "It was a tough day. Obviously we were completely surprised. I came home and laid in bed for like two hours and contemplated everything. Then I kind of got the realization that it's just another stepping stone I have to get through. When I had that attitude instilled in my brain it was only moving on from there."
Herzlich went through radiation and chemotherapy near his home in the Philadelphia area before returning to school to resume classes and workouts in September. He continued his treatments in Boston.
When he got back to campus, he knew where he wanted to go. It was a place where he could go unnoticed even by Boston College coach Frank Spaziani.
"The first place I wanted to be is right in that building," he said as he walked behind Alumni Stadium on his way into the Yawkey Center, a building for student athletes. "I got here on a Sunday. We had one day off before we could move into our dorms. I saw all the coaches. Coach Spaz didn't even know I was in the TV room."
Herzlich said being back on campus was the right place to be.
"Once my friends started to go back to school, I wanted to be back at school with my friends here," said Herzlich, the 2008 ACC defensive player of the year. "Being part of the football team was probably the biggest part. Being welcomed back into the football team the way I was can lift anyone's spirits."
It wasn't only the football team that set out to help Herzlich.
He's received calls from cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling made a donation in his honor. Numerous ACC opponents have held fundraisers in his honor.
The BC student president spearheaded the creation of a gold T-shirt with Herzlich's No. 94 and the words "Beat Cancer" on the front in maroon lettering, the school colors. Proceeds from the shirt sales go to Ewing's sarcoma research.
The school has organized a "Gold Out" for the Florida State game, with fans encouraged to fill the stadium wearing gold. Many are expected to be in the T-shirts.
It hasn't always been easy for Herzlich to be back with the team: It also reminded him that he wasn't able to play.
"I think the hardest time was my first Friday back because Fridays are game prep," he said. "We watched some highlight videos of clips of last season to kind of get ready and I was in a couple of them, so that was probably the toughest part, knowing you're not going to be playing."
Herzlich has three more treatments scheduled. He recently learned the good news from his doctor that the words "cancer-free" may not be far off.
"He's not 100 percent sure, but feels good from his experience," he said. "The only reason he wasn't 100 is because he hadn't done a biopsy. My next stepping stone is to get the leg strong again, get back in shape and start playing basketball and doing that stuff to try and get my wind back and everything."
He looks forward to starting full workouts in December and plans to be on the field next fall.
When BC heads out of the tunnel for its ACC matchup with the Seminoles, it'll be Herzlich leading the way, as he did in the Eagles' opener against Northeastern on Sept. 5, four days after his birthday.
"I knew I was going to be one of the first people coming out of the tunnel because that's what I always do," he said. "I'm not going to change anything now."