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Ex-Patriot tackles cancer

Andruzzi is battling his toughest opponent

He's endured the toughest four months of his life, so it was about time Joe Andruzzi received some good news. It came last Monday when a test revealed the aggressive form of cancer he's been fighting - Burkitt's lymphoma - is in remission.

"When you're a patient, I don't think there is any better news than that; it's very encouraging," said the 32-year-old Andruzzi, a gritty offensive guard who was a member of all three Patriots Super Bowl teams. "There is a lot of anxiety before scans. It felt really good when the doctor said that."

Still, Andruzzi knows his fight is not over. He'll return for another test in three weeks, praying each day that he remains in remission.

Andruzzi began feeling stomach pains in late May, shortly after he was released by the Cleveland Browns. After a battery of tests revealed Burkitt's, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, his focus switched from plotting his next career move to saving his life.

"It all happened so fast," he recalled. "It was a bunch of tests and within 24 hours, we were moving back to Boston."

Andruzzi underwent chemotherapy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, sometimes five days in a row. He also received care at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He counted 46 days in which he was either sick or received treatments.

The hardest part, he said, was leaving his four children behind so they could finish school in Ohio. It also pained Andruzzi to see his wife, Jennifer, taking on such a burden because he was so drained from the treatments.

The family is now together in the Mansfield home they lived in when Andruzzi played for the Patriots from 2000-05. The house was for sale in April but didn't sell, and it's now become a regular destination for former teammates such as Dan Koppen, Russ Hochstein, and Stephen Neal.

"I just have to thank everybody for their thoughts and prayers, for helping me get through this," said Andruzzi, who's been touched by a show of support from the Patriots, which included calls from owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick, vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, among others.

"I'm still getting through this, and it's been especially meaningful to have my wife by my side," Andruzzi said. "You think about families that go through it and it's just hard to think about. The support from friends and family has been great.

"It's been an up-and-down roller coaster this summer, and it still is right now, but we're just hoping for a little more ups than downs, that I can recuperate, get some energy back, and get back to the point where I was just prior [to diagnosis]."

Andruzzi, who played at 315 pounds but is now considerably lighter, hasn't considered a return to the football field.

"I'm just trying to get better right now, trying to do more things around the house with the kids," he said. "Whether I try to play again, it would be next year, if anything. That would be a tough road. I don't know where my life is going right now, so it's just getting my mind and body back to where I was.

"It's been the toughest 3-4 months of my life. Everybody told me that the biggest thing was thinking positive, and just trying to get through it day by day. The whole experience has been life-changing, it's been a real struggle. I just pray every day that things work out and am trying to live life to the fullest."

QB Schaub making good calls in Houston

Houston (2-0) hosts the Indianapolis Colts (2-0) today in what may be the Texans' most meaningful game since they entered the NFL in 2002. Those wondering why the Texans have enjoyed early success need look no further than quarterback Matt Schaub.

Acquired in a shrewd offseason trade with the Falcons, the efficient Schaub won over his teammates by calling every one of them following the trade. It was a move lauded by general manager Rick Smith, but even Smith knows telephone calls don't mean much if they aren't followed by something else.

"He did some things that good leaders do, but I believe, in this game, the way you lead is by your play on the field," Smith said. "The reason why the team is starting to follow and believe in him is that he's producing on the field Sunday. That's true leadership. When you do that, you gain respect and trust of your teammates."

In directing the Texans to wins over the Chiefs and Panthers, Schaub was 36 of 50 for 452 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. His calm under pressure was evidenced last week when the Texans fell into a 14-0 hole at Carolina.

Last year, the Texans might have crumbled in that situation under former quarterback David Carr, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft. But Schaub has helped change the mind-set, upgrading a position that Smith and second-year coach Gary Kubiak put at the top of their priority list entering the 2007 campaign.

"To me, it's the most important position in football; until you get that position solved on a football team, in a lot of respects you're just spinning wheels," Smith said. "It was vitally important to us finding a way to get that.

"Would it be with David? Drafting a young kid? Bringing in a veteran player to compete with David? We entertained various options and this ended up being the best for us."

Smith said he negotiated with Falcons general manager Rich McKay for 2-3 weeks before the sides agreed on trade compensation - two second-round draft choices and a flip-flop of first-round picks (the Texans would pick 10th; the Falcons eighth). It was a gamble for the Texans, as Schaub had minimal regular-season experience (two starts).

"Certainly the athletic and the football evaluation part of it was limited in what we were able to see in this league, because of limited opportunities," said Smith, who joked that he watched the Falcons-Patriots game from 2005 - when Schaub was remarkable as a last-minute replacement for Michael Vick - about 15 times.

"You assess that based on information you have available, and you lean on college reports, do research, and talk to people. We talked to people that we have a lot of faith and confidence in, who worked with Matt and understand who he is, as a man and player. We took all the information available and tried to make an intelligent decision. Is it one a whole lot of folks would make? I don't know, probably not."

To this point, however, the Texans' bold move has paid off.

Kendall's Redskins don't stay down for long

Now in his 12th season and with 158 career regular-season starts on his résumé, offensive lineman Pete Kendall has a good grasp on what helps a team win. In his first two contests with the Redskins this year - victories over the Dolphins and Giants - Kendall has seen one key trait emerge in his team: the ability to respond to adversity.

"We got down in both games and were able to come back pretty quickly with touchdowns to jump back ahead," he said.

"Miami scored on the last play before the half to make it 7-3, and we got the ball to start the second half and scored a touchdown on that drive. Against Philly, they went up, 6-3, and we responded with a touchdown before the half to go up, 10-6. I know it's early, but the fact we've been a little resilient is encouraging."

That resilience has extended to the defense as well, as the Redskins have allowed just one touchdown in seven trips inside the 20-yard line.

Kendall also likes how the Redskins, who have lost starting right tackle Jon Jansen and starting right guard Randy Thomas to injuries, have grinded things out in the running game with Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts sharing the load. The Redskins are averaging 160.5 rushing yards, fourth in the NFL.

Another key has been the development of quarterback Jason Campbell, a 2005 first-round pick who has officially been handed the reins. Campbell is 28 of 50 for 431 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions - not exceptional numbers, but he's kept plays alive and been opportunistic in crucial moments.

" 'Poised' is a very good word for him up to this point," Kendall said. "He's a tough guy who will stand there in the pocket. He took a couple hits Monday night where Philly - scheme-wise and not because someone got beat - was able to get a free blitzer. Yet he stood in and made some throws. That was most impressive to me.

"You see him getting better every day, every practice."

Etc.

A cause close to home
Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel is known for sacking quarterbacks and grappling with offensive tackles and tight ends, but he's also putting his energy into another fight. Vrabel is working to raise awareness of food allergies, as he's seen how they've affected his youngest son, Carter, 5. "Having a child with allergies has opened my eyes to what parents go through to try and make kids with allergies feel as normal as possible," Vrabel said. "Food allergies affect 12 million people. Most of them are children who struggle to find a diet they can eat, and one they like. Kids struggle with school lunches, birthday parties, eating out, things that kids without allergies don't have to think about." Vrabel and his wife, Jen, have dedicated themselves to the cause, as they've tried to provide Carter a healthy diet despite the fact that he's allergic to milk, beef, and peanut butter. Now in his 11th season - and seventh with the Patriots - the 32-year-old Vrabel feels fortunate to use his standing as an athlete to help raise awareness and funds on behalf of the cause. He's serving as an honorary chairperson for Saturday's third Massachusetts walk to increase awareness about food allergy, to be held at Borderland State Park in Easton. "It's a subject that is not that well-known," he said, "but it's important to a lot of people."

Turning 'em loose
In their convincing 2-0 start, the Steelers have limited the Browns to 7 points and the Bills to 3, ranking fifth against the run, third against the pass, while allowing the fewest first downs (23) in the NFL. Pittsburgh has 10 sacks after totaling 39 all of last season. The difference in approach? Players believe coordinator Dick LeBeau has been given more latitude to call exotic blitz schemes under first-year coach Mike Tomlin than he had under former coach Bill Cowher.

Win by a noise
The Cardinals haven't enjoyed great fan support in recent years, partially because fans haven't had much to cheer about. But things appear to be changing, as a sellout crowd of 64,542 was credited by first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt with a key assist during the team's 20-17 upset of the Seahawks last week. Crowd noise contributed to three false starts and caused confusion between Seattle running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck that led to a fumble, setting up the Cardinals' winning score in the fourth quarter. "They had an affect on the game, and to me, that's the most rewarding thing," said Whisenhunt, who became the franchise's first head coach since Don Coryell in 1973 to win his home debut.

He has the Texans' number
The Texans shocked the Colts late last season - and will look to do so again today - but if history is any indication, Peyton Manning should have a big day regardless. Manning has 25 touchdowns and four interceptions in 10 games against the Texans (9-1 record). In each of the last three games, Manning has thrown three touchdowns with no interceptions. If he throws three touchdowns and no interceptions today, he will become the first quarterback in the history of the NFL to accomplish that feat in four consecutive games against one opponent.

Packin' an early wallop
Slow starts and the Packers have seemingly gone hand in hand recently, which is why there is excitement in Green Bay over the team's 2-0 record. It is just the sixth time in the last 40 seasons that the Packers won their first two games, and the first time since 2001. "What we realized, for whatever reason, is we weren't starting fast," said defensive end Aaron Kampman, one of the league's more underrated players. "So we tailored our offseason. We did a lot of work in May and June. In training camp, we pulled off, with two days off a week to try to keep us fresh."

Extra points
The Browns visit the Raiders today and will look to win back-to-back contests for the first time since the 16th game of 2003 and the first game of 2004 . . . Packers quarterback Brett Favre enters today's game against the visiting Chargers with 417 career touchdown passes. He needs four to pass Dan Marino and move into first place all-time . . . According to Stats Inc., Patriots receiver Wes Welker ranks seventh in the NFL in yards after the catch (94). Carolina's Steve Smith (156) is first . . . The Jaguars, Saints, Redskins, and Titans drew the short straw by having their off week on the earliest date possible, after this weekend's action . . . After missing most of training camp in a contract dispute, Chiefs running back Larry Johnson has been eased into the mix during the team's 0-2 start. Johnson totaled just 36 touches in losses to the Texans and Bears, but there's already talk he could reach that number alone in today's home game against the Vikings . . . Minnesota had not reissued Randy Moss's No. 84 since trading him after the 2004 season, but rookie Aundrae Allison - a fifth-round pick out of East Carolina who said he's long admired Moss - is sporting the number this season . . . Dolphins receiver Ted Ginn Jr., the team's first-round pick, has not caught a pass in the first two games.

Did you know?
Since 1990, 18 teams have started 0-2 and still qualified for the postseason. Three of those teams advanced to the Super Bowl - the 1993 Cowboys, 1996 Patriots, and 2001 Patriots - with the '93 Cowboys and '01 Patriots crowned champions.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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