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Fight of his life (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday January 29, 2008 2:13PM; Updated: Thursday January 31, 2008 5:28PM
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By Tim Layden, SI.com

Joe Andruzzi and his brothers, Jim and Bill -- both NYC firefighters -- understand how to navigate the turmoil of tragedy after enduring the emotions of 9/11.
Joe Andruzzi and his brothers, Jim and Bill -- both NYC firefighters -- understand how to navigate the turmoil of tragedy after enduring the emotions of 9/11.
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C.J.'s mother, Lucy, is a pediatric cardiologist at Children's Hospital in Boston. It is impossible to measure the depth of sadness that Lucy and her husband, Carter, felt. Such measure will not be attempted here. "I was a pediatrician,'' says Lucy. "I thought I understood, in some na´ve way, what parents go through when they lose a child. I had no idea. None.''

As the Buckleys sought treatment for their son, they also sought to enhance his remaining time. They had a friend who worked at the B.J.'s Wholesale Club near the Patriots' training facility. She often saw Patriots' players shopping. Shortly after C.J. was diagnosed, she saw Joe and Jen Andruzzi at the store and told them of C.J.'s illness and asked if there was a chance that the team might be able to do anything for C.J. He was, of course, a Patriots' fan.

Joe and Jen took down C.J.'s number. "We figured that would be the end of it,'' says Lucy. Yet almost immediately the Patriots called the Buckleys. C.J. was invited to a day at the team's training camp at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I. The team made a golf cart available to C.J. but he refused to use it. After practice, Andruzzi came over and met C.J., and introduced him to several others, including then-star quarterback Drew Bledsoe and coach Bill Belichick. It was a dream afternoon for a very sick boy, yet it was only the beginning.

The Andruzzi's befriended the Buckleys. Joe visited C.J. often, and sometimes brought his older children with him. "He was a such a great, strong kid,'' says Joe. "There are times when I would go over to his house with my oldest son, Hunter, and no matter how bad C.J. felt, he would sit up in bed and play PlayStation with Hunter. He taught him how to play.''

C.J. outlived his diagnosis by more than a year, eventually dying on Dec. 10, 2002. "C.J.'s friendship with Joe was very special to him and to our family,'' says Lucy. "It began as something surprising and it evolved into an incredible appreciation for the man and his wife and his family.'' Joe and Jen Andruzzi helped start and put on fundraising dinners for the C.J. Buckley Brain Cancer Research Fund at Children's Hospital.

The bond between the Buckley and Andruzzi families took another form last May as Jen and Joe frantically sought treatment options in Boston. Jen called Lucy Buckley, who in turn called a colleague, who in turn helped Joe get an immediate appointment with Dr. David Fisher, a lymphoma -- and Burkitt's -- specialist. "It's funny how God puts you in different situations,'' says Joe. "I became good friends with C.J. and his family. His family became like a part of my family. And they are really great people. And then they helped me with my sickness.''

Andruzzi's oldest brother, Billy, put it another way. Upon seeing Lucy Buckley at a gathering that brought the families together last year, Bill Andruzzi said to Lucy, "It's almost like there was a plan. That Joe would help C.J. so that your family could help Joe.''

There was much work left for Joe. It is the paradox of Burkitt's Lymphoma that while it is ruthlessly aggressive, it also responds well to equally aggressive chemotherapy. That phrase -- "aggressive chemotherapy'' -- is so antiseptic as to be misleading. Joe Andruzzi tosses off admissions of pain like manhole covers, yet he says, "It was real tough.''

He spent nearly the entire summer as an inpatient at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. The chemo took his hair, his weight (he lost more than 40 pounds) and his energy. He was known as one of the toughest people in the Patriots' locker room, making the NFL as an undrafted free agent from Division II Southern Connecticut State and enduring multiple surgeries in addition to the relentless physical work performed by offensive linemen. Yet now he says, "I went to 10 training camps in the NFL. I'd rather go to any training camp than what I went through last summer.''

Jen was at his side nearly every minute. "My rock,'' says Joe. She would help her mother or her in-laws get the three older kids off to summer camp at 6 a.m., before driving from North Attleboro to Boston to sit by Joe's bed. Some nights, when Joe was at his worst, he would ask Jen to stay with him and she would sleep on a cot in the room, rising long before dawn to drive back to the suburbs, so that the kids wouldn't realize their mom had stayed with their dad and become fearful that he was declining.

"People talk about cancer as this disease with treatment and stages, but it's so much worse than just that,'' says Jen. "But you lose your entire immune system. It made him so sick. He had so many blood transfusions. His family donated blood, [Patriots' guard] Steve Neal donated blood. You hear about blood drives; they're so important. But through it all, Joe was amazing. He was so strong and I'm so proud of him.''

Joe had seen that strength before. A small bit of background here. Some stories inhabit a writer. That's not the same as saying a writer remembers a story. I remember Little League coaches and high school basketball players whom I interviewed 30 years ago. Other stories dig more deeply and stay there. This one stays there.

Five days after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I was welcomed into the Andruzzi home in Staten Island to write a story for a special issue that Sports Illustrated published in the week after 9/11. (I still believe this is one of the best issues SI has ever turned out). The Andruzzi family's story touched both sports and the tragedy because all three of Joe's brothers -- two older and one younger -- were (and still are) firemen. The second-oldest, Jimmy, had barely escaped alive on 9/11, racing into the street from Tower Two, just before it collapsed.

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