Joe Andruzzi had been gearing up to get his football career back on track. In May 2007, two weeks after getting cut by the Browns, Andruzzi was in Cleveland working out at a local gym preparing to make a couple of visits with teams around the NFL.
But there was this biting pain in his stomach that grew excruciatingly worse by the day.
“I just started getting some stomach pains,” Andruzzi said Thursday, the first day of the eighth annual WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon. “It wasn’t normal. I just told my wife I wanted to see a doctor.”
After a series of tests were inconclusive, Andruzzi had a CAT Scan on his stomach on May 16, 2007, which found a large tumor spread through his abdominal area and wrapped around his colon. It was an extremely rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma called Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a very aggressive type of cancer that can double in size within 24 hours.
Andruzzi, a New England Patriots guard from 2000-04, was no longer fighting for his next contract. Rather, he was getting ready to fight for his life.
The Andruzzi family still had ties to the New England area and decided to move back to their old house — which they still owned and previously loaned to a close family on the rebound after they had lost their own house to a fire — and Andruzzi wanted to go for treatment at Boston’s finest hospitals.
Andruzzi called another family, the Buckleys, whom he helped just five years earlier as their son, C.J. Buckley, battled cancer. The Buckleys put Andruzzi in contact with Dr. David Fisher of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and June 1 — two weeks after his diagnosis — Andruzzi began chemotherapy.
“I was in the hospital for 50-plus days,” Andruzzi said. “It was a very intense protocol which required sometimes five to 10 straight days of chemo, on top of being sick and totally running my body down. Here I was trying to play another year in the NFL, and a month later, I couldn’t get out of bed. It was tough [on my] part, and also tough on my whole family. My wife was in charge of four kids, the family health and also the move back to Massachusetts here.”
Obviously, it was a trying time for the Andruzzis, but they were helped through the ordeal with the support of a close circle of friends. Andruzzi loves to draw upon the phrase, “What goes around comes around.”
Prior to the Patriots’ 2001 training camp at Bryant College in Rhode Island, Joe and Jen Andruzzi were approached at BJ’s Wholesale Club by an aunt of C.J. Buckley. She told the Andruzzis her story and asked if there was any way they could help C.J., a teenage Patriots fan who was fighting brain cancer. Andruzzi invited C.J. to a day at camp, introduced him to the whole team during practice and got him a bunch of autographs.
“When you’re going through a tough situation like that, whether you’re a kid or an adult, you try to get their mind off things for a day,” said Andruzzi, who also raised money to help the Buckleys afford their medical bills. “It picked his spirits up a little bit. Then, both families became very close. His aunt is now like my kids’ aunt. His parents are like my kids’ aunt and uncle now. We’re very close. They’re a great family.”
About a year and a half after Andruzzi met the boy who was so inspirational, so upbeat and so carefree, C.J. died due to an inoperable brain tumor. He was 17.
“He fought the hardest,” Andruzzi said. “There’s a reason why our families met. I do believe, as I said before, what goes around comes around. I met him for a reason. He lived every day to the fullest. You put him on a sailboat, and he didn’t have cancer. Nothing followed him on a sailboat. He loved sailing. We would go over his house. My oldest son, who is 11 now, was about four or five years old, and [C.J.] would jump out of bed and play PlayStation with him and play games with him. It was inspirational to see how young a boy was battling that ordeal.”
Andruzzi helped set up the C.J. Buckley Brain Cancer Research Fund at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Since, the fund has raised more than $500,000 for families who can’t afford the pricey procedures necessary to battle the horrible disease.
Still wanting to do more, Jen Andruzzi developed the Joe Andruzzi Foundation while her husband was undergoing his own treatment. To this day, the Andruzzis still operate both of the funds, and although it’s barely a year old, the Joe Andruzzi Foundation has raised about $250,000.
“We try to help other research groups,” Andruzzi said. “Our main goal is to help families. We give grants to families who are struggling. I know, personally, how my family struggled. I was fortunate enough to have a good-paying job at the time, but other families aren’t as fortunate and are going through a tough time. Chemo is getting more and more expensive. It’s not getting any cheaper. I was taking shots of white-cell boosters that were thousands and thousands of dollars, and people can’t afford it.”
Andruzzi is fully cured, and he went in for his two-year checkup Thursday. “[The doctor] told me the next time I make a visit, it’s going to be a social visit. That was quite good to hear.”
He was also at Fenway Park on Friday to help with the Jimmy Fund Telethon, another cause he works with on a regular basis. Andruzzi speaks at a number of Jimmy Fund events, and he and his wife recently rode in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge.
As a three-time Super Bowl champion with the Patriots, Andruzzi understands he is a public figure, and he uses that as an advantage to raise an incredible amount of awareness for cancer research.
While Andruzzi’s football career faced a premature ending two years ago, it has given him more time in his second career, one that affects and inspires many, many more people. As he learned with C.J. Buckley years before, one person can open two eyes. While Andruzzi continues to shed light on this disease, he knows he can open many more than that.
“[Cancer] can affect anybody,” Andruzzi said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. If we can raise awareness just a little bit, that without places like the Jimmy Fund, I wouldn’t be alive today [with] the money they raise, and what they put toward research and everything that revolves around that. Years ago, nobody knew about Burkitt’s Lymphoma. Here I am alive and talking to you today.”
(To learn more about the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, visit joeandruzzifoundation.blogspot.com. To donate to the Jimmy Fund, visit www.nesn.com/jimmy-fund or call 877-738-1234.)