Late in the fourth quarter the Giants were lined up to punt and they had only 10 players on the field. Suddenly a blue jersey sprinted onto the field from the sideline, pulling on his helmet as he ran, unsure of exactly where he was going or what spot he’d be playing.
It was Mark Herzlich, and while most 30-year-old veterans would have already been checked out of the game both mentally and physically, Herzlich was all too happy to grab one more snap.
“There was just a hole to fill,” he told Newsday of noticing the lack of personnel and lining up, eventually, as a guard. “I didn’t know where exactly there was going to be a hole so I just ran out. If we can save a timeout, that’s great. I was able to run in there and do what I do.”
Herzlich chuckled when it was mentioned that “Hole To Fill” could very well be his nickname on this Giants team. Whether it was flirting with playing tight end over the past few years or jumping in on a rather meaningless special teams rep in a preseason game.
“Exactly,” he said with pride. “Where do you need me, coach? Put me wherever you want.”
There was another reason why Herzlich was so eager to run on the field late in Thursday’s game against the Browns. He hadn’t played in any game situations since the end of the 2016 season, missing all of last year with a neck injury suffered in training camp. He wound up on injured reserve for the entire season and had to watch while the Giants struggled through their 3-13 misery.
He was, however, along for the ride, attending most of the meetings and on the sideline for most games.
“I knew I was going to miss the entire season,” he said, “so I said, ‘OK, how can I be around the team and help out as much as I can?’”
It wasn’t the first time he had to ask himself that question. Last season was the second time Herzlich sat out an entire football season. The last time was a lot more serious. He missed the 2009 season at Boston College after he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer. Playing football again seemed out of the question, and surviving the disease was not a sure thing.
“The first time I did it, I obviously was going through treatments, and it was a year of just getting my body destroyed,” Herzlich said in an interview with Giants.com. “It was just beaten down. The following year, that was just trying to constantly build back up. Last year, after recovering from my injury, it was just a full year of getting my body right again. It was building strength and endurance and just focusing on how to get my 30-year-old body in the best shape it could possibly be in. I feel so much better this year.”
On Thursday night, Herzlich played middle linebacker with the second-string defense. He was the player organizing the huddle and making the calls, backing up Alec Ogletree who did the same with the starters. Herzlich played 38 defensive snaps with one tackle and one quarterback pressure. He also played 10 special-teams snaps.
“It felt awesome,” he said after the game. “It was fun to be back out there. It was interesting because going through everything it didn’t feel like I was out for a year because it felt the same.”
He’s no sure bet to make the final roster. The Giants have a lot of competition, a lot of younger players. Herzlich is very popular in the organization – he was last year’s team nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award – and is one of the few players on the roster who was with the Giants when new general manager Dave Gettleman was with the team.
That won’t buy him a job, though. He still has to earn one. And that’s fine with him.
“I think anytime something’s taken away, you realize what’s important to you,” Herzlich said. “You start to evaluate what are these things in my life that are important to me, and football is definitely one of them. The first time, obviously with cancer, it was a little bit different, because I had to make medical decisions based on what I wanted my football future to look like. This time it was, ‘I’m going to come back and play again.’ It’s just in terms of when.”