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Former Patriots player is there for cancer patients

Andruzzi with 6 year-old Ethan Bairos in 2011. Andruzzi started visiting cancer patients as a Patriots player and stuck around after the cameras stopped rolling. .

Steve Haines for The Boston Globe

Andruzzi with 6 year-old Ethan Bairos in 2011. Andruzzi started visiting cancer patients as a Patriots player and stuck around after the cameras stopped rolling.

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.

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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.”

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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.”

‘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.’

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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.”

Joe Andruzzi at his Mansfield home with his NewEngland Patriots and Super Bowl memorabilia. He was a Patriot for five years — and three Super Bowl wins.

ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE

Joe Andruzzi at his Mansfield home with his NewEngland Patriots and Super Bowl memorabilia. He was a Patriot for five years — and three Super Bowl wins.

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.

“For a lot of people that 20-something dollars a day you can pay for parking at a hospital adds up, along with the meals, the missed time for work. And so that kind of led us later in the year to look at starting something new to help families cope. You know how they say, ‘There but for the grace of God . . .’ ’’

A year after Joe’s diagnosis, almost to the day, he had a clean bill of health. His cancer was in remission and he was regaining his strength, weight, and hair. On May 22, 2008, he and Jen launched the Joe Andruzzi Foundation.

“Keep in mind, they had four kids at the time,” Fisher says. “It’s five now. They didn’t have training or any experience with foundations. He was still going through very tough therapy, very physically and emotionally tough. But it was that crucial to him to help the families after seeing what his family might have gone through if they had been in different circumstances. And I’ll tell you, all things considered, with that big heart, big personality, and big smile, he and Jen have done a terrific job. And he has done a spectacular job raising money.”

The foundation, through Joe’s individual fund-raising and five annual fund-raising galas, the most recent of which was last month, has raised more than $2.5 million and donated to more than 400 families.

Christina Thirkell, executive director of the Boston-based Expect Miracles Foundation, a cancer research charity centered in the financial services industry, says she’s been impressed by the Andruzzis and their foundation.

“I met Joe and Jen back in 2008, ironically, when we asked Joe to speak at one of our foundation events,” Thirkell says. “Given what he has been through personally, I think that’s a tremendous part of what makes his foundation successful. He’s a survivor. His biggest achievement is that he’s battled cancer and is now using that experience to give back.

“I’ve had Lance Armstrong and so many other people. But Joe was so genuine and talked about what he felt and what he went through. We’ve had him come back and speak year after year because his story is so compelling.”

Further, Thirkell says, Andruzzi is a successful fund-raiser because he and his wife actively lead their charity rather than leaving it to professional organizers..

“I think people can really connect with Joe and Jen because they have such a close-to-home experience,” Thirkell says. “And they have an almost familylike structure to their organization. Plus, he’s this big burly guy, but when you peel back the onion, he’s so gentle.”

Bill and Noreen McLaughlin of Westwood say they can attest to the Andruzzis’ charitable successes.

Noreen, a preschool teacher, had a recurrence of breast cancer three years ago, and Bill, her husband, juggles his time between staying at her side and working as a sergeant with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department.

And while it’s a given that life has not been easy — Noreen is now in hospice care — the Andruzzi foundation has made it easier, Bill says.

“As you can imagine, it has been pretty tough,” he says. “We have a pretty big family with our children and what not. Emotionally, we’re handling it. We’ve accepted what we need to accept. And we have a great support network. And I would tell any spouse, one of the best things you can do for your loved one or yourself is talk about it. Don’t bottle up the feelings.”

A difficult part has been making ends meet.

“Stuff like getting everyday bills paid, utilities, maybe a mortgage payment here and there, covering the costs of all those smaller things at or near the hospitals. . . . We’ve gotten two grants from [the Andruzzi foundation] to take care of our needs, and it’s not a stretch to say we might not be making it on the financial side without that help.”

When the idea of getting help from a foundation was first raised, Bill says he was reluctant. “It’s human nature for many of us to just not want to be anyone’s stereotypical charity case,” he says. “But then we met Joe and Jen. And we didn’t just meet him. He’s been there. He’s been here! He looks after us and Jen checks in on us regularly. And accepting help from their foundation has been an honor, because in the end, here’s what it boils down to: They’ve been where we’re at.”

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.
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