Offseasons do not get more tumultuous and disheartening than the one the Boston College football team experienced this year.
Less than two weeks after losing to Vanderbilt in the Champs Sports Bowl — a defeat that snapped the Eagles’ eight-game postseason winning streak — Boston College announced in unceremonious fashion that it was firing coach Jeff Jagodzinski, who ignored an ultimatum from the school to not interview for an NFL job.
Four months later, the team dealt with an even graver loss when star linebacker Mark Herzlich — the 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year — made public that he was battling a rare form of bone cancer, an ailment that would force him to miss the 2009 season (although he has vowed to return for the 2010 campaign). Herzlich said in October he was “99 percent” cancer-free.
Those dual setbacks only heightened the absences of the team’s departing seniors, among them defensive tackle B.J. Raji, drafted in the first round by the Green Bay Packers. With those heavy losses, it was no surprise that the Eagles were picked in the preseason to finish last in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, and most prognosticators said the school’s streak of 10 straight winning seasons was in jeopardy.
Yet thanks to fiery first-year coach Frank Spaziani, a solid running game led by Montel Harris and a tough defense, the Eagles are back in the postseason for the 11th consecutive year, defying everyone’s predictions by playing powerhouse Southern Cal in the Emerald Bowl at AT&T Park on Saturday.
“We’ve always had tight-knit football teams here, and we know what it takes to win,” said center Matt Tennant, a second-team all-conference player. “That adversity only brought us together as a team.”
Dealing with hardship is nothing new for Boston College’s seniors, who are playing under their third coach in four years.
“Regardless of who our head coach is, we know as a team what it takes to win,” said wide receiver Rich Gunnell, who leads the Eagles with 54 catches and 750 yards. “That’s what’s special about this group of guys — we’ll do whatever it takes to come out on top.”
The Eagles have been able to rally around the courageous example of Herzlich, who is with the squad in San Francisco. Herzlich’s roommate, linebacker Mike McLaughlin, suffered a serious injury to his Achilles’ tendon during the spring, a setback that was initially expected to keep him out for the season. However, the senior defender, inspired by Herzlich’s determination, battled back from the injury and returned to the field by the team’s fifth game.
“He’s out there fighting for his life, so it puts everything in perspective,” McLaughlin said. “How can we not give everything we have, knowing what he’s dealing with?”