Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Today we visit with Mark and Danielle Herzlich. Mark is a Super Bowl-winning NFL linebacker with the New York Giants. Danielle is a new mom and a captain in the U.S. Army. By the time Mark and Danielle met in college, each had faced difficult battles in their young lives. Mark was a football star, destined for the NFL, when he found out he had a life-threatening cancer. And as Danielle began college, she was putting a life of domestic abuse behind her and recovering from the terror that her abusive father brought into her home. As they were seeking God to sort out their lives, God brought them together and showed them how they could use the pain of their experiences to help others find courage through similar challenges.
Courage to Use Your Voice: Mark and Danielle Herzlich – Jesus Calling Episode #110
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Today we visit with Mark and Danielle Herzlich. Mark is a Super Bowl-winning NFL linebacker with the New York Giants. Danielle is a captain in the U.S. Army and a new mom. Mark and Danielle met in college and, to that point, had faced very different battles in their young lives. Mark was a football star, destined for the NFL, when he found out he had a life-threatening cancer. As Danielle began college, she was putting a life of domestic abuse behind her and recovering from the terror that her abusive father brought daily to her home. As they both were seeking God to sort out their lives, God brought them together and showed them how they could use the pain of their experiences to help others find courage through similar challenges.
Mark: My name is Mark Herzlich. I play linebacker for the New York Giants, and I’m going into my eighth season. I’m a cancer survivor, husband, soon-to-be dad, and a big advocate and supporter and philanthropist in our community.
Danielle: My name’s Danielle Herzlich. I am married to Mark Herzlich. I am a wife, soon-to-be mom, an advocate, a captain in the Army, and a survivor.
Mark: I was born in St. Louis, Missouri. And then we moved to Wayne, Pennsylvania, right outside of Philadelphia, when I was about four years old. So I grew up there and went to high school there.
And I was always an athlete through growing up. And really, I played every single sport I could find or do: swim team, tennis team, paddle tennis in the winter to football and lacrosse—everything. I would just do it. And so my childhood was outside. We would we would play all day and we’d come in at night and and play board games.
“My childhood was outside. We would we would play all day and we’d come in at night and and play board games. – Mark Herzlich
My parents were incredibly supportive of me, not because I was successful, just because they always told me, “Just enjoy what you’re doing.”
Danielle: His parents are unbelievable parents, and what makes them such good parents in my mind is that how much they love each other and support each other. And Mark had an unbelievable example to live to live up to, which is really special.
From a Life of Fear to a Breath of Fresh Air
I’m from Boston I grew up right outside the city; a huge Italian family. I grew up with my cousins and my aunts and uncles and my grandparents, all in this little family bubble.
I have two sisters. One of them is exactly 12 months younger than me. And then the other one is 10 years younger than us. So a little bit of an age gap. They’re my best friends. We’re super, super close.
I grew up with an amazing mother. I can’t even really begin to say how unbelievable she is and just how she’s my hero, for sure. But I also grew up with an extremely violent and abusive father, so I kind of had this weird dynamic in my home growing up where there were some really, really horrible things that happened to us. But there were also some really incredible things and really great memories that I had, all because of my mom.
“I kind of had this weird dynamic in my home growing up where there were some really, really horrible things that happened to us.” Danielle Herzlich
We had nothing. And it was always, What can we give, what can we do? Every Sunday was at a homeless shelter, at a soup kitchen. My sister and I, we did thousands of hours of community service in high school organized by my mom—not for any reason—that is how she is. We were always having people over for dinner. We were always letting people into our home for whatever reason. She was like adopting these old ladies who didn’t have anyone to our house and like just helping them. She’s just been incredible.
“[My mom] was like adopting these old ladies who didn’t have anyone to our house and like just helping them.” – Danielle Herzlich
So I had a lot of the Christian base in my life from a very early age. But in terms of having a relationship with God and talking to God, it was survival-based, like, the only time that I would call on God is when I thought I was going to die—when I thought something was going to happen to me, when I thought something was going to happen to my mom. Or when I was watching my father brutally beat someone in our house, or when I was in the hospital– whatever was happening. So my relationship and my talking to God was literally for survival.
“My relationship and my talking to God was literally for survival.” – Danielle Herzlich
I grew up in fear pretty much every day of my life. I’d be afraid to go home. When I was home, I’d be afraid to do anything.
And being in that environment with other people, but me being the oldest, I kind of very early on, from the time I was probably eight or nine years old, became that protector role. And in my mind, it was my job to protect me and my sisters and my mom from everything that was happening. I still kind of feel like I like carry that in a lot of my relationships.
But my mom did an unbelievable job of protecting us for a really long time, until she couldn’t protect us anymore.
So obviously my father was very abusive. And then shortly after my father was removed from our home, my relationship that I was in, in high school, kind of very quickly turned into a very abusive relationship as well. So up until I was about 18 years old, I was extremely unhealthy in terms of basically all relationships with men and boys in my life, and I didn’t have any concept of what healthy was at all. And it also led me to make some really questionable choices in my life and experiment with things that I shouldn’t have done.
So going into college, it was like a total breath of fresh air for me. It was the first time that I was able to kind of completely disconnect from everything unhealthy in my life. And I opened my eyes to new experiences and new friends—like, actual real friends and real relationships—and realized, Oh, wow. I can actually be friends with with boys.
A College Football Star Faces A Devastating Diagnosis
Mark: After my childhood growing up in Wayne, I went to Boston College and played football. And things were great. It was it was an awesome place to go to school. And my football career was going really well.
And right after my junior year, we had just finished the bowl game, and I started feeling this pain and my left leg. It was persistent and kept coming back, and it was kind of there sporadically all the time. But it turned out after six months of not really knowing what this pain was, I got a diagnosis of bone cancer in my left leg.
It was at a time in my life where I was preparing to fulfill the dreams that I had since I was a little kid. I always wanted to be an NFL player. My mom was cleaning out her attic about a year ago and brought me this book. And it was a little book that I had drawn the pictures of and written in elementary school, and they bound it and we saved it. And it was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And [my answer] was a football player. It was crazy because not only was there a football player, but I had myself in like a blue and red jersey, it’s crazy. It was like a little Giants player.
And I got that, and it kind of brought me back to when I was diagnosed because so much of my life had been about sports and about football. And so I was right about to accomplish that and was looking at going into the draft and was All-American in college. Everything was kind of going in this kind of dream sequence, and I was diagnosed with cancer.
And it seemed like in that instance, all that stuff that I had been counting on or dreaming about had just been ripped away. And not only did it rip away these dreams, but also ripped away my identity as a man. And I think I identified myself so much with the tangible things, the things that I saw on TV of what men should be: big and strong and, in the football arena, fast and rich and getting the beautiful women and stuff like that. That’s kind of what I thought being a man was. And when I was told I had cancer, the football was gone, I was going to lose my hair. That future of a career that’s out of the window too. And so everything that I thought I was, was now being taken away from me.
“It seemed like in that instance, all that stuff that I had been counting on or dreaming about had just been ripped away. And not only did it rip away these dreams, but also ripped away my identity as a man.” – Mark Herzlich
I think it’s interesting how in your in your life sometimes, when you feel like everything’s ganging up on you and it’s kind of like the fight-or-flight instinct where you get backed into a corner, it’s like, Okay, how am I going to fight this? And at first it was like, You know what? I’ve just got to tough it up and fight it by myself, and I can do it. I’ll be good. And the chemotherapy started and the radiation started, and my energy was drained. I would you know get angry and irritated and feel depressed. And it’s interesting because that’s really when I stopped fighting by myself and let God help me fight this battle that I didn’t think that I would be able to do it alone anymore. And it was also right around that time where I let God back into my life.
“That’s really when I stopped fighting by myself and let God help me fight this battle that I didn’t think that I would be able to do it alone anymore. And it was also right around that time where I let God back into my life.” – Mark Herzlich
It was also right around that time when let God back into my life that I met Danielle.
The Real Definition of Being A Man
Danielle: I feel like when I met Mark, I was probably a little bit further along in my journey just because I had been in this Christian environment like for longer. But I was still trying to figure out things. And I was still trying to figure out how to talk to God, and I was still trying to figure out like, Oh, actually, I can talk to Him, and I can thank Him for things. I don’t have to just call on Him when something horrific is happening.
So I think we were kind of—
Mark: You were definitely further along than I was, for sure.
Danielle: Yeah, definitely farther along. I had read the Bible front to back a million times because of my my major and all that stuff. So it was like I had all the groundwork, and I knew everything, and I could quote Scripture. And I was known as . . . all my friends were like, Oh, we have a God question. We’ll go to Danielle, she has all the answers.
But it’s funny because at the same time, I was kind of like, But I don’t really know God very well.
I feel like we couldn’t have met at a more perfect time, in terms of both of our lives. You know, when we first started hanging out, I think one of the reasons that he liked hanging taking with me so much was because I didn’t look at him as a victim, or I didn’t look at him with sympathy. When we would hang out, I didn’t feel bad for him just because I knew how that felt to be looked at like that. And so we just grew this really awesome friendship.
Like I said, I thought we were friends, like, we were in the friendzone. And that’s what I thought, like, we were going to be friends. But it was really special because he was one of my first real guy friends. So that, for me, was like a really big thing in my life.
Mark: One night, we were hanging out watching a movie. And after the movie, that’s when she wanted to tell me her story. And she told me about about her father and about her life growing up, and about how she had these insecurities with men, but how in that moment she felt like she was safe around a man for the first time, and that she wanted to tell me something she hadn’t told anybody. And she told me something that she hadn’t told anyone before, and I remember after she disclosed her story, she looked at me and she said, “Do you think any differently of me?”
I said, Well, actually, I do. I think you’re amazing. I’ve never met someone so strong.”
Throughout the whole time, I’ve been dealing with a crisis of identity and figuring out who I was and fighting this battle for my life. And it wasn’t until that moment, when she sat there and had that safety while I was with her, that I realized that being a man was not about all those things that I saw on TV, about all the all the physical aspects that someone can take away from you. It’s about being there for someone and creating this safe environment and filling that space with love.
“Throughout the whole time, I’ve been dealing with a crisis of identity and figuring out who I was and fighting this battle for my life.” – Mark Herzlich
Whether it was her speaking to me or God speaking to me or whatever it was that night, it really changed my life.
I didn’t ask her until much later, but I knew in that moment she was a girl that I didn’t really ever want to be without.
“[Being a man] is about being there for someone and creating this safe environment and filling that space with love.” – Mark Herzlich
Danielle: So like Mark was saying, we start hanging out. We became really good friends. And then after a while, we did start dating, and it did go to the romantic way.
I remember a couple of my friends, my roommates, sat me down one day and they said, “Hey, we like Mark. We don’t really know him that well, but we like Mark. But have you kind of like thought about the fact that you’re dating someone who could die?”
And at that point I hadn’t—like, it didn’t really cross my mind because we hadn’t really talked about it. And like I said, I wasn’t looking at him like as that person. I was looking at him as Mark.
After that conversation with my roommates, I remember he came over. We were talking or something, and I remember I looked at him and I just said, “Hey, are you ever scared you’re going to die?”
And he looked at me like right in the eye and he said, “I’m not going to die. I’m going to beat cancer and will play football again.”
“I’m going to beat cancer and will play football again.” – Mark Herzlich
And I just remember saying, “Okay,” and wholeheartedly, wholeheartedly believing him and, in that moment, never doubting it.
And then when people would say things like that to me, I would just feel like, He’s not going to die. He’s going to beat cancer, and he’s going to play football again. That was because, I don’t know, for some crazy reason like I believed him just as much as he believed it.
Mark: It’s funny because you talk to any of my closest friends during that time, they look at it and are like, “It didn’t even cross my mind that you weren’t going to beat it, that you weren’t going to come out on top. I just knew you would be okay.”
“I Can’t Do This By Myself.”
But I remember when I was diagnosed, right after I was diagnosed, I had been struggling because I was kept on putting on this face for everyone else saying, “I’m okay, I’m okay.” And I’d lay down at night, and the fear would just envelop me. And I would lay awake and think, What if I’m not going to be okay? Those thoughts of of of dying and everything was there, but I couldn’t show anyone.
I got a phone call from a stranger while I was with some friends, and it was a guy who had seen my story on ESPN and he called me. His name was Walter Musgrove. And he said, “Hey, I got your number from somebody and I just wanted to give you a call because I was also a college football player, and I also went through cancer. And I just wanted to tell you that I came back, and I played football again. I don’t know if you’re Christian. I don’t know if you pray, but I want to encourage you to pray. I prayed every every day, and I prayed specifically. Have specific prayers for something that you want to have happen during this process.” And he told me he didn’t want to lose hair on his head because just to him that meant he was losing the battle. And even though doctors told him he would go bald, he prayed every single day Specifically they would lose hair, and he didn’t lose any hair.
And I just I heard him, and I listened to what he had to say. I hung up the phone and I kind of thought about it for a little bit and thought, Gosh, you know what? What harm could this do? Why don’t I just try it?
And so I remember the first time I prayed. It was in the morning. I woke up, and I said, “Okay, pray specifically. What do I want? And I remember it was like composing a letter.
Danielle: Like Judy Blume.
Mark: Yeah, to a friend I haven’t like talked to in a while. It’s like, “Dear God, I want to play football again and be healthy.” And, like, “Signed, Mark. Hope you didn’t forget about me.”
So it was every morning and every night, I would just pray this prayer that I’d play football again and that I’d be healthy again. And it became a habit. But then it also became my go-to when I felt that stress. I’d be laying in my bed and couldn’t sleep at night. Oh my gosh, who do I talk to? And I had gotten in the rhythm of talking to God.
And so I was like, I’m just going to talk to God.
You know, it became less formal. I was like, Bro, I can’t do this. Like, I can’t do this by myself. And I’m scared, and I can’t tell anyone. I don’t want to tell my parents. I’m scared because they’ll start crying. I can’t talk to doctors because they don’t understand it. I can’t do this by myself.
“I’m scared, and I can’t tell anyone. I don’t want to tell my parents. I’m scared because they’ll start crying. I can’t talk to doctors because they don’t understand it. I can’t do this by myself.” – Mark Herzlich
It was like God just was like, “Let me get some of that. Give me all that pain. Give me all the hurt.” And it was just like a weight was literally lifted off my shoulders. So that became how I got back into being like, God’s the man. He’s pretty good.
And that continued through my faith. And obviously, God came through and my doctors came through. And all the time, some people who are skeptics will be like, “Look, you had great doctors. You know the medicine cured you.”
I said, “Who do you think gave these doctors these abilities? Who do you think put them in my life?”
And so I was able to play football again, and I was able to become healthy again.
The day after I found out that I was cancer free, I got a call from a former football player, who I had read his story in his book of how he got over a stroke to come back and play again. And I found so much connection in our two stories. His name is Tedy Bruschi. And he reached out to me and he called me, and he had no idea that I had just found out I was cancer free. He just wanted to check in.
And he said, “Hey, Mark, I heard you’re going through some stuff and just wanted to lend you my support and know that you can you can do it.”
And I was like, “Hey, you’re one of the first people I’m telling I’m cancer free.”
And he said, “Man, that’s so great. You’re a survivor now. As a survivor, you’ve got a choice. You have the opportunity to share your story and give back and help other people become survivors, or you can say, ‘Hey, man, this is awesome, I’m a survivor,’ and kind of move on and take your next steps. Whatever you choose, that’s completely fine. Just know that you have that choice.”
“As a survivor, you’ve got a choice. You have the opportunity to share your story and give back and help other people become survivors, or you can say, ‘Hey, man, this is awesome, I’m a survivor,’ and kind of move on and take your next steps. Whatever you choose, that’s completely fine. Just know that you have that choice.” – Tedy Bruschi
I remember hang up the phone with them and being like, All right. That’s the next part for me. I’m okay and I’m healthy. Now it’s time for me to share my story and let other people know that it’s possible. That whatever they’re going through, they can get through it.
And so that’s how I started going. And I started speaking and sharing my story on TV and newspapers and then started speaking…
Danielle: Going to hospitals…
Mark: Going to hospitals to get to kids and writing letters.
I started writing a book and was able to release it a few years later. It’s been so awesome because it’s cool to be like, “Oh, the sales are here!” But when I get kids who text me or tweet me or email me and say, “Hey, couldn’t put your book down,” yeah. “My brother has been having issues, or he got diagnosed with cancer. And I just sit in a hospital room and I read him your book.”
Like that . . . yeah, I’m going to get emotional . . . but yeah. That’s what it’s about. And there’s no need to keep to myself if it can help someone else.
Awareness Only God Can Provide
Mark: When I do the devotionals and when people say, “Hey, why don’t you give me your favorite devotional or give me your favorite passage?”
I was like, “Well, it probably just so happens that today’s is pretty good. It’s a passage from the Bible, so it’s probably pretty good.”
So today’s was awesome. It said:
“Let Me help you through this day. The challenges you face are far too great for you to handle alone. You are keenly aware of your helplessness in the scheme of events you face. This awareness opens up a choice to doggedly go at it alone, or to walk with Me in humble steps of dependence. Actually, this choice is continually before you, but difficulties highlight the decision-making process. So consider it all joy whenever you are enveloped in various trials. These are gifts from Me, reminding you to rely on Me alone.”
Then a passage from James said,
“Consider it joyful, my brethren, whenever you are enveloped in or encounter trials of any sort or fall into various temptations. Be assured and understand that the trial and proving of your faith during our endurance and steadfastness and patience.”
I mean, like how good is it that this is a day where we’re reflecting back on things that have been not awesome in our lives. And every single day things come up that are temptations that that are are just like, Hmm, you know what? Probably shouldn’t do this, or
Danielle: This would be easier . . .
Mark: Or big things like cancer or fighting for your life. There are these things that you are aware of, but God brings them out in this awareness that only He can provide, and it brings out this opportunity and choice for you.
Danielle: Yeah, totally.
“You Have a Voice, and You Can Use It.”
Danielle: We were asked by the Giants, “We need some players to come support this gala that we’ve got a table for.” That was literally all the information we had. We got in a car that the Giants sent, and we went to the event. And so we had no idea that it was a domestic violence shelter until . . . I don’t even know if we knew when we got there.
So finally I’m sitting down at the table, and I’m realizing that this is for domestic violence. And I remember the moment specifically, there was another wife and her husband that were sitting next to me. And I remember my because my back was to the stage because it was a circle table. And you know my ears started perking up because the person behind me who was speaking, I started realizing that she was you know basically sharing my mom’s story. Everything was the same.
And so I turned around, and it was like almost like I was watching my mom up on the podium speaking, because the similarities of the stories took my breath away.
And I remember being in that moment and listening to her, and just feeling like, Wow, this is one of the first times that I’ve heard someone else go through exactly what I went through. And obviously I knew domestic violence happened, but it was like exactly what had happened. And I was just so taken aback, but also at the same time I was like, Wow, it’s not just me. This didn’t just happen to me. This didn’t just happen to my mom. And that was the first realization that I had of that, which is crazy.
I could go on and on about this, but we were in the dark. We were silent. We were scared. We were shunned. We didn’t talk about it. We weren’t alone, completely alone.
And that was the moment where I turned to Mark at that event and I said, “I want to do something like this. I want someone to hear my story, and I want them to realize that they’re not alone in this.”
Mark: The next year, one year later, at the same gala, Danielle didn’t feel like she was able to share her story herself in front of everyone.
Danielle: I hadn’t found my voice yet at that point.
Mark: But she she entrusted me to go up and be able to share her story, but share my story.
Danielle: How it impacted him.
Mark: And how my vision of my identity had changed, and how it had brought God’s love into my life for others.
So I remember standing up on that stage and I had spoken hundreds of different galas before for cancer-related issues and perseverance and leadership. And I remember being up there and I was speaking to my wife and. And still to this day, every time I speak about this, it’s like I’m speaking to my wife. And it just fills me with so much joy to let someone else know that . . . I remember seeing her face when she realized that she wasn’t alone, and she started crying and she just had that weight lifted off her shoulders. And I knew what they felt like. And so every time we get up and we speak, and a young woman or young man comes up to us after and says, “Hey, I would like to talk to you about something,” I know right then that they had that same moment, and it’s magical.
Danielle: Belief and validation are two of the biggest gifts that you can give any survivor of anything, especially a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault. So, “I’m so sorry that that happened to you, and it’s not your fault,” is a very easy way to do that.
“Belief and validation are two of the biggest gifts that you can give any survivor of anything.” – Daniele Herzlich
And usually when I do say that, this look of just complete kind of peace [comes on their face]. Because a lot of the time, that’s the first time that they’ve ever heard that. The first time someone said that to me, it was the first time I’d ever heard heard it, and it changed my life. So that alone, belief and validation, is huge.
And then just kind of putting it into perspective of, “You can do this too. You can help change someone’s life with your story. Your story is just as powerful as mine, if not more. And you have the ability to do what I just did. And that ability comes from God and comes from Jesus. And He wouldn’t have put you here right now, like, in this spot if He wasn’t planning on using you and using you for this.” And just reminding them of that simple little thing. You have a story. You have a voice, and you can use it.
Mark: I’ve been able to be healthy and to play football for one reason, and that’s to be able to share my story and to be able to be so into this community and help other children and adults know that just because you’re diagnosed with cancer does not mean it’s an end to your dreams. And this is an opportunity to make a choice to allow God to come into your life.
“Because you’re diagnosed with cancer does not mean it’s an end to your dreams.” – Mark Herzlich
And then with Danielle, I think we feel like on both sides, on cancer and abuse, we decided, “Look, this is important to you. And so I’m 100 percent in with you.” That’s kind of our partnership and our team and our marriage has been forever and always will be.
Danielle: And I think one last thing to say: there’s nothing special about us. I think that both of us have just, like I said, decided to say yes. And there’s one thing that someone said to me a couple of years ago: “God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.”
I feel like I’ve really just tried to live that way and realize that I am completely unqualified to do what I do. And Mark is completely unqualified. But we’ve just chosen to say yes, and we know what God has our back, and we’re just going to keep moving forward. And I want everyone who’s listening to know that they have every ability and capability that we have to share their story too, because that’s what makes this so incredible.
Narrator: Mark and Danielle Herzlich support the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that is committed toward a world free of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. For more information, please visit http://www.joyfulheartfoundation.org/.
Narrator: Next week on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we visit with Kay Warren, writer speaker and wife of Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. Kay describes a painful time in her life as she dealt with her son’s severe mental illness and how she didn’t understand why that happened, but how she trusted God through it.
Kay Warren: My life is anchored on the belief that God can be trusted. I don’t understand why Matthew had mental illness so severe. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand why we couldn’t get all the help that we needed. I don’t understand why he wasn’t healed. I don’t know. What I do know is that God holds those answers, and I’m content to let God hold those answers.