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Ex-Patriot, wife aid cancer patients

Joe and Jen Andruzzi in their Mansfield home. Joe and Jen Andruzzi in their Mansfield home. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Christie Coombs
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2010

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It was May 2007. Joe Andruzzi had just been released by the Cleveland Browns, where he played after helping the New England Patriots win three Super Bowls. He was recovering from knee surgery and preparing to talk with other NFL teams.

Andruzzi, his wife, Jen, and their four children were moving to New Jersey to be closer to his family. Despite the uncertainty about his career, things were good.

But then Andruzzi began to feel sick. He was given the frightening diagnosis of non-Hodgkins Burkitt’s lymphoma, a highly aggressive cancer that caused a huge mass to grow in his stomach. Treatment began immediately, because this type of malignant tumor could double in size in 24 hours.

Through several months of treatment, the Andruzzis were touched by their experience and that of people they met. As Joe began to feel better, they created The Joe Andruzzi Foundation. The life they knew in the NFL was in the past, but their celebrity status and football connections helped them raise money for cancer research and assist other families who were coping with cancer. Three years later, the foundation is going strong.

Within days of Andruzzi’s diagnosis, the family decided to move back to Mansfield so he could begin intensive chemotherapy at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. That summer he spent 50 days in the hospital. The once burly, 6-foot-3-inch, 315-pound offensive lineman dropped 70 pounds. The talent and determination he showed on the field were no longer being used to protect the quarterback. Now he was using every ounce of strength to fight for his life.

Before he got sick, Joe and Jen visited patients at Dana-Farber “because we were both passionate about making a difference,’’ said Jen Andruzzi. In 2001, they met and became close with C.J. Buckley, a teen suffering from brain cancer. They continued visiting him until Buckley succumbed to cancer in 2002.

“C.J. inspired us,’’ said Jen. “We wanted to do something, so we started the C.J. Buckley Brain Cancer Research Fund at Children’s Hospital.’’

Five years later, as Joe Andruzzi lay in bed shaking from fevers and the effects of chemotherapy, Jen sat at her husband’s side.

“I had a lot of time on my hands,’’ she said. “I researched what kind of help was out there for families affected by cancer and didn’t find much, so I thought we’d create a nonprofit that would help them.’’

But her husband was less certain.

In the fall, Andruzzi completed treatments and began a slow recovery. At 31, he had the motivation to press on, but “coming back was tough.’’ He felt physically and mentally crushed.

“It was a daily struggle,’’ Andruzzi said. “I experienced depression. I wanted to snap my fingers and be back to normal. Physically, the biggest challenge was just to walk.

“A psychologist gave me great insight. I was mad at cancer. It took away my career. She helped me realize there’s more to life than football.

“I wanted to put cancer behind me, but people started reaching out to me for help. I realized we could do a lot of great things with the foundation because of our connections and what we’d been through.’’

In May 2008, the Joe Andruzzi Foundation became official. Since then, the foundation has raised about $600,000 and helped 30 families.

In addition to providing financial assistance, the foundation hosts fun events, cosponsors blood and bone marrow drives with Children’s Hospital, and continues to fund pediatric brain cancer research. The Andruzzis also visit patients regularly.

Lisa Sherber, a patient activities coordinator at Dana-Farber, said the Andruzzis’ effect has been palpable. When a teenage patient told her doctor recently how much she likes Tom Brady, the staff asked Andruzzi if he could get a signed shirt. Just days later, Joe and Jen showed up with the autographed jersey — and with Brady himself. The Andruzzis’ kindness and their surprise visitor totally lit up the teen’s day, said Sherber.

Nicole Fiset, a 37-year-old teacher from Plaistow, N.H., worried about bills while she went through breast cancer treatments. Fiset, a single mother, said she “reached out to them, not sure of what they’d be able to help with. They paid an entire month’s mortgage. They removed the worry of whether I’d be able to buy milk for my daughter and let me put that energy into my healing.’’

Andruzzi, who once thought he would be a teacher, now is an assistant strength coach with the Patriots and an active alum. Cancer-free, he said he doesn’t miss the grueling physical part of football, just the camaraderie. But the foundation is his new life.

“It gives us a great feeling,’’ he said. “There are a lot of downs because of the people you lose, but there are more ups.’’

Jen Andruzzi said she and her husband have always been philanthropic, but “we didn’t know it would become our job. Our goal is to serve as many patients and families as we can.’’

The Andruzzis also coach soccer and football, serve on the parent-teacher association at their children’s school, and generally do what other families do.

“People comment on how normal we are,’’ said Jen Andruzzi. “That’s good, because that’s who we are.’’

The Joe Andruzzi Foundation hosts the New England Celebrities Tackle Cancer Gala on Nov. 1 at Christina’s, 2 Washington St. (Route 1) in Foxborough. A reception and live and silent auctions begin at 6 p.m. Master of ceremonies is sports radio host Dale Arnold. Tickets are $125 per person. Call 508-838-8198 or e-mail events@joeandruzzifoundation.org. Christie Coombs can be reached at mccoombs@comcast.net.

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