Fight of his life
Former Patriot lineman Joe Andruzzi is beating cancer
Posted: Tuesday January 29, 2008 2:13PM; Updated: Thursday January 31, 2008 5:28PM
On Sunday evening, Joe Andruzzi will watch the Super Bowl from his couch in southeastern Massachusetts. It'll be a decidedly more serene perspective than he experienced in 1997 as a rookie reserve guard with Green Bay, or in 2001, '03 and '04 when he started in each of the Patriots' Super Bowl victories, a central figure, doing endless dirty work in the trenches during the formation and growth of a modern football dynasty.
Andruzzi's wife, Jen, will be there, along with their four children: Hunter (10), Breanna (seven), Thomas (five) and Teresa (two). Maybe a few friends will visit for the game, as well. They will cheer for the Patriots and probably get to sleep quickly when it's finished because kids begin Mondays long before the sun rises.
It is not the same for Joe as battling a defensive tackle, pushing the run game and protecting Tom Brady. That is self-evident. It is also different in a much more fundamental way, because Joe, 32, is alive today, scarcely eight months after being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. These days he lives with a deeper understanding of life, family and friends, and the unbreakable cord that links humans together.
It is a remarkable story, connected this week to the Super Bowl because Andruzzi owns three rings, earned while performing for a team that on Sunday might very well win its fourth championship in seven years, treading upon hallowed ground in the history of the NFL. Yet it is also a story that has little to do with football. It is the story of a strong, vibrant teenaged boy who died much too young, and a New York City firefighter who nearly died on 9/11 and lives every day with the memories of that morning. It is a story of tragedy transformed into hope and into survival. Of love, caring and connections.
It begins on the afternoon of last May 16 in Cleveland. Joe Andruzzi had been recently let go by the Cleveland Browns after two seasons. He had joined the Browns as a free agent after the Patriots' third Super Bowl and had played two seasons with Cleveland. On that day, Andruzzi underwent a physical exam. He planned to sign with another team and continue his career, but he had been experiencing stomach pains. A CAT scan was performed as part of the process and at 1:30 in the afternoon, Joe called Jen, who had been at an elementary school teacher appreciation event.
"Joe told me that the doctor said they found a 'mass,' in the scan,'' says Jen. "Once you hear those words, your entire life changes.''
Joe says, "One minute I'm a football player looking for someplace to play and the next minute a doctor is telling me I might die.''
It would be more than two weeks before an accurate diagnosis was rendered. At first, doctors thought Andruzzi had been afflicted with colon cancer, but his colonoscopy was clean. Ultimately he was determined to have Burkitt's Lymphoma, a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that advances with such haste that it can double in size in just 24 hours. The Andruzzis faced life-altering decisions that had to be made in a matter of hours. "We literally took three hours to figure everything out,'' says Jen.
They had recently bought a home in New Jersey, with the intention of moving their family closer to Joe's family in Staten Island. Now their moves would be guided by the location of Joe's treatment. Friends implored them to seek treatment at a major cancer center, two of which were Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Jen first did what so many others would routinely do: She checked their health insurance website. Dana Farber was covered and Sloan Kettering was not. They honed in on Boston.
There were practical issues. Where would they live in the Boston area? Remarkably, they had not sold their home near the Patriots' Foxboro headquarters. They had put it on the market, but when friends were displaced by a fire, the Andruzzis had allowed their friends to move into their home. Jen called the moving company that was contracted to transport the family's belongings to New Jersey and instead asked that they be taken to Massachusetts. Their children would stay behind and finish the school year in Cleveland; Jen's mother and Joe's parents would help.
The availability of housing was serendipitous; another coincidence was much more emotional.
On July 19, 2001, a 16-year-old boy from Providence, R.I., named C. J. Buckley, a student at Tabor Academy in southeastern Massachusetts and a brilliant sailor, won a regatta in the waters off Cape Cod. Soon he would compete in the Junior Olympics. After his victory, however, C.J. began experiencing headaches. On July 21, he underwent an MRI and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He was given four months to live.