For Andruzzis, 9/11 memories still raw

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It wasn't easy for them to come here a decade ago and, truth be told, it's not any easier now.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the New England Patriots invited the three brothers of offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi, all New York City firefighters, and his father, a former New York City police officer, to Gillette Stadium to participate in pregame festivities when football resumed play following the terrorist attacks.

It turned out to be an iconic moment. Andruzzi led the Patriots onto the field clutching a pair of American flags, and his brothers, wearing their firefighter jackets, raised their helmets to the crowd while being showered with a hero's ovation before kickoff of a game against the New York Jets.

The moment seemingly aided the healing process in New England. It honored those that were lost, celebrated those that risked their lives to save others, and ushered in a little bit of normalcy that was desperately needed as football returned in the aftermath of those life-altering events.

During the Patriots' exhibition finale against the New York Giants earlier this month, the Patriots asked Andruzzi and his family to return to Gillette Stadium to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11. The Andruzzis -- all in matching No. 63 jerseys that Joe wore during his time in New England -- walked the sideline with smiles, posed for pictures with team owner Robert Kraft, mingled with veteran players and waved to fans -- many of whom were at the stadium a decade ago.

But it still didn't make the moment any easier.

"Sadness," answered Andruzzi's brother, Billy Jr., when asked what the 10-year anniversary represents for him. "Not that we'll ever forget, but it brings back all the bad memories. We remember why we were here 10 years ago.

"It was just so hard, very hard to even come up here [in 2001]. We had to leave our men on the pile -- the rubble down at Ground Zero -- to come. But we felt like it was our duty to come up here. The biggest thing was representing the firemen, representing all the people down there."

Even now, it's hard for the Andruzzi family to discuss the events of Sept. 11. Joe Andruzzi was at a dental appointment during the Patriots' typical Tuesday off-day when the first plane struck the towers, and he chokes up a bit when he starts to recall the process of trying to find out if his brothers -- Billy Jr., Jimmy and Marc -- were safe.

It's even harder for Jimmy Andruzzi, who was on the 27th floor of the north tower when the south tower crumbled and he was ordered to evacuate. By his own estimation, he made it out of the south tower less than a minute before it collapsed. It was six heart-wrenching hours before he was able to alert his family that he was OK -- a stranger with a cellphone ultimately called Andruzzi's parents to let them know all the brothers were safe.

It was a phone call that never came for the loved ones of 343 New York City firefighters who perished at the World Trade Center that day, many of whom the Andruzzi brothers knew. And that's why the brothers returned to Gillette Stadium earlier this month.

"It's more of a tribute, more of a remembrance of what we're here for," said Joe Andruzzi, who played five seasons for New England and won three Super Bowl titles, the first of which came during that emotional 2001 season, and his brothers were on hand in New Orleans to celebrate that stunning upset of the Rams.

"My brothers and father are not [back at Gillette Stadium] for me [on the 10-year anniversary], and they're not here for themselves. They are here for what they stand for, what happened 10 years ago. For what's still going on and the efforts [overseas]. Basically they are here for all the workers out there that risk their lives every day."

Like his brothers, the memories of Sept. 11 remain fresh for Joe Andruzzi.

"Time will heal all wounds, but the wounds are pretty deep and those images are stuck in your mind," he said. "I came in here [Sept. 12, 2001], but I wasn't really here. Once they cancelled that weekend, I drove back home and I'll never forget that ride to Staten Island. Going through that Jersey Turnpike, looking over to my left and not seeing those towers there. It's an image imprinted in my mind that I'll never forget. Getting home and seeing my one brother [Jimmy], who was this close, and that's how close he was from that building falling behind him."

The family is trying to make the most of the anniversary. As hard as it was to come back to Foxborough, they know it was the right thing to do. Billy Sr. smiles as he notes that all the boys worked their regular shifts the night before the ceremony at Gillette Stadium. Their jobs don't stop because of the 10-year anniversary.

"It doesn't feel like 10 years," Billy Sr. admitted. "Seeing what's going on in New York now, it's bringing back good memories and bad memories. But [being in Foxborough] is fantastic. Some of these people still know us, they remember us from 9/11."

The brothers want those same people to use that recollection to remember what happened a decade ago.

"It's an honor for my entire family, for what they stand for and what they represent," said Joe Andruzzi, who made a full recovery after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2007. "What happened 10 years ago was a tragedy in this country and we don't want that to ever happen again. Ten years later now, we don't want to forget.

"[The firefighters were] running into burning buildings at a time when everyone else was running out. It's a tough job. Pretty much 90 percent of them all have to work two jobs to make ends meet. They don't get paid really well for what they do. But like a normal day, they were going into those towers to put out a fire. Nobody knew they were going to fall when they were going up, they were going to do their job. They were calm, cool, collected. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Unfortunately it did and a lot of people perished that day. The fighting effort is still going on, but we are here to remember 10 years ago and fighting to not have that happen again."

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.