By Kevin Saleeba
Providence, R.I. – Six-year-old Robbie Martin sat up in his hospital bed at the sight of the gentle giant entering his room.
He smiled a toothy grin as former New England Patriots player Joe Andruzzi stood at the side of his bed. Robbie is being treated at the Hasbro Children’s Hospital for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a cancer that is attacking his white blood cells.
Andruzzi, a cancer survivor himself, spent Monday afternoon visiting young cancer patients to help spread some positive energy to the kids battling such an unforgiving disease.
What does a young boy like Robbie say to the 6-foot-3, 300-pound former NFL lineman? He pointed to the small gap in his smile and said, “I lost my tooth!” He then showed Andruzzi a roll of one dollar bills totaling $11. “I got this for my tooth.”
|Cecelia Ibanez, 15, is fighting her second bout of Leukemia at Hasbro(Kevin Saleeba / Patriots Insider)
Once Robbie broke the ice with the three-time Super Bowl Champion, Andruzzi sat near the bed and autographed photos from his playing days with the Patriots. The two discussed soccer, baseball and family. He also let Robbie try on his Super Bowl rings and mug for some photos.
Andruzzi was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2007 which ended his football career. After successfully beating the disease, he formed the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, an organization committed to providing “help, hope, and a reason to smile” for cancer patients and their families.
“It was a three month struggle for me,” said Andruzzi. “When I was diagnosed, I knew I had the support of my wife (Jen) and my four kids at the time … Our focus was; how are we going to fight this? We can’t change the plan for tomorrow, but we can live for today. My family was upbeat and that helped get me through it.
“Getting cancer was the toughest day and the toughest thing to do is to smile,” he said. “Laughter can be the best medicine … families are battling this every day and a smile and laughter can go a long way. A great, big belly laugh can help them feel good for that moment. It did for me.”
|Andruzzi brought a smile to Nathan Lambert, 3, at Hasbro. Nathan is battling Neroblastoma(Kevin Saleeba / Patriots Insider)
Andruzzi noticed the chemotherapy port attached to Robbie’s chest. The chemo port is a small devise implanted under the skin to allow easy access to the patient’s bloodstream. A port can be used to draw blood and infuse chemotherapy drugs. It can also be used if transfusions are needed for red blood cells or platelets.
Andruzzi pulled the collar of his red polo shirt aside to show the scar on his chest. He wears his port scar like a badge of honor. “Look Robbie, this is my chemo port scar when I had cancer.” Robbie looked down at the chemo port attached to his chest and smiled again.
“I haven’t seen him smile like this in a long time,” said Rachael Martin, Robbie’s mother. “This is great.”
Andruzzi then pulled out his smart phone to show Robbie a picture of his bald head from his chemo therapy.
“I remember my daughter gave out a belly-laugh when she first saw me with no hair,” said Andruzzi.
Andruzzi said seeing the kids smile and helping families has been very rewarding.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have played 10 years in the NFL. I was fortunate to not have to worry about paying the medical bills. I just wanted to use my so-called celebrity status to pay it forward.”
Andruzzi’s foundation helps families who are battling cancer by contributing financial, in the form of one-time grants to cover basic living expenses, and emotional support when it is needed most.
“I come from a blue collared family,” Andruzzi said. “My father was a cop and my three brothers are fire fighters. They help people. I’m the black sheep playing football. I have to take my football career and help pay it forward like my family.”
The Joe Andruzzi Foundation touches lives throughout New England, New York and New Jersey. Since 2012, the Foundation has provided $101,250 in financial assistance to 138 patient families either living or receiving treatment in Rhode Island. The Hasbro Children’s Hospital visit is part of the Foundation’s Special Teams Program, which pairs the Foundation with cancer institutions throughout New England to create relationships that help the Foundation identify patient families in need of support.
|Bethany Lindeblad, 16, was recently diagnosed with Lupos. She posed for a photo with Andruzzi's Super Bowl rings(Kevin Saleeba / Patriots Insider)
At the end of his visit with Robbie, Andruzzi patted the boy on the shoulder and stood up near the bed.
“Keep smiling and be positive,” he said. “Take it one day at a time. Laughter is the best medicine.”
Andruzzi then walked to his wife standing at the foot of the bed and grabbed a dollar bill.
“You can add that to your tooth money,” Andruzzi said to Robbie. “Are you going to buy your sister a present?”
Robbie responed, “Heck no!”
Robbie’s parents and the Andruzzi's all laughed and smiled.
"This is a good day," said Robbie's mother.
As Joe and Jen Andruzzi continue to foster relationships in Rhode Island, they will look to further spread the Foundation’s (Up)Beat philosophy during a sponsorship of WaterFire Providence on September 21.
Also, the Joe Andruzzi Foundation’s “Points for Patients” Campaign Looks to be a “Game Changer for Cancer Patients” and their Families with Assistance of National Grid, CBS Radio and The Place restaurant by providing pledges of $500 for every touchdown scored by the Patriots this football season and will match public donations up to $75,000.
To learn more about the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, please visit the Foundation website (joeandruzzifoundation.org) or follow them on Facebook and Twitter @joeandruzzifndn.
Kevin Saleeba is the senior editor and columnist for Patriots Insider. A former beat writer for local media, Kevin has extensive knowledge of the team and experience covering the Patriots. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinSaleeba