Conquering cancer with help from mom: Mark Herzlich
If a writer submitted a screenplay based on Mark Herzlich's life, Hollywood executives would likely reject it as too unlikely.
The New York Giants linebacker, a former All-American at Boston College, was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, before his senior season. Doctors didn't know if he would survive the disease, much less play football again. Through hard work, dedication and an unrelenting will to overcome the odds, Herzlich defeated cancer and remarkably came back to not only play football again, but win a Super Bowl.
Herzlich credits his doctors, friends and family for helping him overcome the disease and get back on the football field. His mother, Barb, herself a standout athlete at Wesleyan University, played a critical role in his recovery.
"My mom has been just amazing and a big part of my life," Herzlich said during an interview at a NFL Play 60 football camp in New York. "Going through cancer and coming out really on top. My mom was in every single treatment with me, came to every radiation, set up all the doctor's appointments and took care of all the insurance stuff.
"After everything that has happened over the last three years -- diagnosed with cancer, told I would never be able to play again, told I might not live again for another five years -- it was really cool for my parents and my mom especially to see me fulfill my dream. That is the type of thing that my mom, and I think parents in general, always want -- for their kids to fulfill their dreams and always realize their goals. So to watch her watch me do that, it was really exciting, and it was a nice gift I could give back to them for everything that they did for me."
During the last few years since his diagnosis through his Super Bowl championship, Herzlich has come to appreciate the relationship with his mom in a new light.
"It took me awhile to learn this, but when they say mother is always right, she is pretty much right all the time," Herzlich said. "When I went off to college and ever since then really my mom has been one of my best friends. She has been there, not to tell me what to do, but she has given me guidance and let me find my own way."
Now Herzlich will be relying on his mother's wisdom and experience as he tackles a new challenge -- fatherhood. Well, puppy fatherhood, to be precise. Herzlich recently adopted two English bulldog puppies, Champ and Scout.
"We had dogs growing up and my mom bred one of our yellow labs, so she has raised 14 puppies at once," Herzlich said. "So every time she comes up it's, 'I told you you are going to have to buy another gate,' or, 'I told you you are going to have to do something.' The dogs, yesterday, they figured out a way to push the gate over and climb upstairs and completely tore apart all the plants and stuff upstairs. So those are the times I call my mom and say, 'Mom, I do not know what I am supposed to do.' Those have started and that will continue pretty much my whole life."
With cancer behind him and new puppies to take care of, Herzlich is looking forward to a Mother's Day without any of the drama and stress of previous years.
"This year to have a day on the other side of everything is so much nicer because Mother's Day for the past couple of years has been so overshadowed by a lot of other stuff," Herzlich said. "I remember all the time my mom and I used to dance to James Taylor in the kitchen on every Mother's Day. So we will probably break out some James Taylor again and dance this year."
My two moms: Marcus Dixon
When Marcus Dixon talks about his "three mothers," his face lights up and he grins like a little boy.
The 6-foot-4, 295-pound defensive end is an intimidating presence on the New York Jets' defensive line. But he wouldn't be enjoying his success in the NFL (in 2011 he registered 16 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble) if not for his maternal support system.
"If it wasn't for my mothers, I wouldn't be here today," Dixon said last month at the NFL Play 60 Youth Football Festival in New York. "I'm blessed with two mothers and my grandmother. They're very inspirational, very strong; they're my backbones. They really keep me going. They keep me playing sports today. They're always in my corner, and I can depend on them."
Dixon isn't exaggerating when he says he wouldn't be where he is today without his mothers, especially his adoptive mom, Peri Jones. Dixon's birth mother had drug problems, so he lived with his grandparents as a young boy growing up in Georgia. Jones' husband, Ken, coached baseball in a nearby town and got to know Dixon when he joined the coach's team.
The two men bonded, and when Dixon (who is African-American) was 11, the Joneses (who are white) became, with Dixon's grandparents' consent, his legal guardians. Dixon excelled on the football field and in the classroom at Pepperell High School. Vanderbilt offered him a football scholarship. The American dream would be his.
That was until his senior year in high school, when Dixon was accused of raping a white schoolmate. His world came crashing down around him. Dixon claimed the sex was consensual, but the jury convicted him on a count of statutory rape and aggravated child molestation (he was 18, the girl was 15) in a case some alleged was racially charged. The controversial conviction eventually earned national attention on HBO's "Real Sports," "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and other media outlets.
Peri Jones led a tireless effort to get Marcus' conviction overturned.
"That's a strong woman right there with my situation," Dixon said of his adoptive mother. "She's a lady that doesn't drive anywhere by herself, but this lady drove across country by herself to get things done and to get the ball rolling."
After 15 months in prison, his family's hard work paid off. On May 3, 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Dixon's molestation conviction, and he left prison the same day.
"She's really been there for me through everything," Dixon said of Jones. "Family turned on us. She's always been there, and I can always count on her. I'm truly blessed."
After that experience, Dixon took nothing for granted. His scholarship to Vanderbilt had been revoked, but he wanted to get his degree. Education had always been important, a priority instilled in him by his grandmother, Glenda Booket.
"When I was younger, with sports it was either you do your school work or it's no sports at all," Dixon said of his grandmother's philosophy. "I was picking up a ball ever since I can remember and I came home with a bad note one day and she literally took sports away from me for a whole week."
Dixon graduated from Hampton University in 2008 and went undrafted. He eventually signed with the Dallas Cowboys, with whom he played until his release in 2010. He joined the Jets in September 2010 and has been contributing ever since.
Dixon knows that future success with the Jets will require hard work and commitment, values he learned from his grandmother.
"That's one strong black woman. Since I was a little kid she's always been there," Dixon said. "She's always thought that it's about hard work," Dixon said. "Ever since I can remember she's always been working. She instilled that hard work into me."
Dixon shares his on-field success with his off-field support system.
"They're loving it," Dixon said. "They're living through the dream just like I am living it right now."