With the holidays past us for another 11 months, some people have neatly packed away their charitable spirits with the lights and ornaments.
Not so Joe and Jen Andruzzi, the former New England Patriots guard and his wife. The couple — he a giant of a man at 6 foot 3 inches and around 300 pounds at his playing weight , she tall and elegant — say they will be giving gifts year-round, as they have for more than four years through the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, the nonprofit they founded in 2008 to help families of cancer patients pay their day-to-day bills.
The Andruzzis don’t claim their foundation is unique. Indeed, according to The National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are more than 98,000 nonprofit charitable foundations in the United States. Organizations such as the Sports Philanthropy Project and The Good in Sports list hundreds of nonprofits started by professional athletes or former pros.
But what makes the Andruzzi foundation special, Joe believes, is that it was born of a mix of irony and karma, after he learned that he himself had cancer.
“It is kind of a cliché, but I really do believe that everything happens for a reason,” Joe says. “That’s my life before, my life since. It all happened in the order it was supposed to.”
To get before and after, you have to go back through Joe’s childhood, high school and college football, and the first three years of his professional career.
“My whole life was health. I was healthy. My family was healthy,” he says. “My three brothers are New York City firefighters. We’ve just always been physically strong. It’s one of those things you can take for granted.”
In 2001, though, Joe’s take on health changed when he and Jen met C.J. Buckley, a young cancer patient at Children’s Hospital Boston , who was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor.
Rather than fade away, back into their own routine, when the cameras turned off and the special event that brought the three together had ended, Joe and Jen stuck around.
“I don’t know how to say it, other than we became friends,” Joe said. “We really loved that kid, and I was just moved to spend as much time with him as I could.”
Buckley died in 2002, but his life prompted Joe and Jen to start the C.J. Buckley Brain Cancer Research Fund at the hospital.
And that could have been it. Joe and Jen’s legacy as decent people would have been solidified, and they could have turned 100 percent of their energies back to raising a family and supporting his playing career.
“But the thing about Joe was that he never felt right being that guy who started something like a charity project but didn’t actually work on it,” Jen says. “So he was pretty hands-on. Naturally, he’s not a doctor or a researcher. But he does love kids. And so every spare minute he had — time that wasn’t spare — he was at the hospital visiting with the kids and getting to know their families. And he was thrilled with that. I guess that’s where the karma comes in.”
An unexpected twist occurred in that karma on May 30, 2007, when Joe, following two weeks of intense stomach pain and other aches that even he, as a football player, found difficult, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Burkitt’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
“It was devastating,” Jen says. “And you can never be prepared for it, but in a strange way, we were partially prepared, because we had spent so much time with the other families who were suffering.”
Joe’s lead physician was Dr. David C. Fisher, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“Here’s what immediately struck me about Joe,” Fisher says. “First, in terms of his involvement, it’s quite easy for players to be kind and nice for 10 minutes and then forget about the patients they visited with. But Joe didn’t do that. He didn’t forget. Next, when he became a patient himself, no matter how sick he was, he was always there with a smile and a cheery word. It’s just as easy to be unpleasant. Joe never was. He was a pleasure to care for.”
Under Fisher’s care, Joe was hospitalized and underwent an aggressive treatment regimen for two months, followed by close to 10 months of rehab and therapy. Like millions of other cancer patients, he lost his hair. He lost a lot of weight. His energy was sapped. And his children were frightened at their daddy’s weak appearance.
“But what came out of this was we experienced it from the families’ perspective too,” Jen says. “We felt what it was like to commute to the hospital to be with Joe. Neighbors picking up our kids after school or taking them to sports practice. Eating several meals a day at the hospital, and even little stuff like parking. We realized that if it was this tough on us, and we were blessed, fortunate to be able to afford care and afford to maintain our lives.Continued...