Up on the stage, the not-so-old ex-guard who scrapped his way from non-football-powerhouse Southern Connecticut State to a decade-long NFL career in one of the game’s most grueling positions, before battling cancer, stood with his wife and looked out over a room of guests there to help them help others.
Down below, at a table front and center, sat another fighter of sorts, a fellow interior lineman now in his eighth year in the league after going undrafted despite coming out of one of college football’s most-renown programs.
The son of a New York City cop and brother to three of FDNY’s ‘Bravest.’ His speech still thick with a Staten Island accent. His bulk still in the neighborhood of the 315 pounds he carried on his 6-foot-3 frame as a three-time Super Bowl champion.
A child of the South born to be a football player and baptized in the sport as the nephew of a playing-and-coaching great. He too is a 300-pounder rising to 6 feet, 3 inches. However, he speaks with the drawl of his native Georgia and owns two championship rings among the rewards of his gritty labor.
Fifteen years ago, after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt’s lymphoma, Joe Andruzzi and his wife Jen committed themselves to a life of helping cancer patients and their families meet daily needs that never disappear as diagnoses and treatments take precedence in and upend their lives.
Groceries to feed themselves. Utilities to light and heat their homes. Rent payments to keep them housed. Premiums to keep them insured. Even fares for a Lyft to and from their medical appointments.
Last year alone, the Joe Andruzzi Foundation distributed more than $1 million in direct financial assistance to 3,762 cancer patients. In JAF’s history, the figure exceeds $9 million.
As diagnoses, costs and accompanying financial burdens increase, Jen and Joe soldier on trying to provide means to meet them. In their unending quest to do so, they hosted the 15th Annual Joe Andruzzi Foundation Gala at Gillette Stadium.
The stadium’s East Putnam Club was filled with benefactors and patients who’ve benefitted from JAF. Personal stories, both uplifting and heartbreaking, were told. Hundreds of thousands more were raised. People who gave money, time or both were recognized.
Jen and Joe honored a handful of the Foundation’s “Game Changers.” Among them, Patriots center David Andrews. Accompanied by wife Mackenzie, Andrews was joined by Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater and their wives.
One table. Three teammates.
All captains. Quintessential Patriots, in fact.
Tough. Smart. Reliable. Accomplished.
And, to a man, community servants. Just like big Joe.
In 2003, entering his fourth season in New England, Andruzzi was the first recipient of the team’s Ron Burton Community Service Award. Slater earned the honor in 2013. McCourty in 2014. Andrews in 2020.
This being game week, mind you, Slater and McCourty had been at the football facility all day; meeting, studying, conditioning and practicing before playing the Colts on Sunday. The same would be true for Andrews; except he couldn’t practice that day.
Two Mondays earlier, a dirty hit by the Bears’ Mike Pennel that drew an ejection and subsequent fine left Andrews concussed and unable to play last weekend. Or this weekend.
But there he was Thursday.
A week from Tuesday, on Nov. 15, Andrews will be at another fundraising gala, again to be recognized for giving himself to an important and worthy cause.
He’ll join ex-Patriots linebacker Steve Nelson as honorees at the 17th Legends Ball in Wrentham for their devotion to the Hockomock Area YMCA’s Integrated Initiative for children and young adults with special needs.
McCourty and Slater figure to join him for that event too. All three, like — you guessed it — Andruzzi, have long made time for the program that allows kids who are often marginalized to enjoy the same kind of games and activities their peers enjoy.
Thanks to those Patriots, those kids get to belong. They get to be kids.
Between them, from Andruzzi to Slater to McCourty to Andrews, the four span the two decades of New England’s dynastic reign over the NFL.
They have prospered in an unforgivingly physical, often violent game. There’s no questioning their strength; in body and spirit.
Nor, as we were reminded Thursday and will be again on the 15th, their kindness; in heart and soul.
Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.