Andruzzi: Marathon became 'mayhem'

The photo is classic Joe Andruzzi. He is carrying an injured woman, a stranger who has her arm around his beefy neck. He does not know anyone is taking the picture until one of the woman's daughters yells at the photographer: "Stop taking pictures of my mom!"

Andruzzi, former New England Patriots lineman, cancer survivor, son of a cop, carries her to an ambulance. It is around 3 p.m. on Monday afternoon, the world has gone to hell, Boston is in chaos and Andruzzi's sunglasses are still sitting perfectly on the top of his head. He calms down the woman's daughters. He finds others to help.

A few hours later, Andruzzi finally lost it … a little. He went home, to his five kids, and the enormity of the day hit him. But Andruzzi quickly composed himself. He does a lot of public speaking, and tells people that life has its ups and downs. "It's how you battle back from being down," he said.

It could be said that Joe Andruzzi is either one of the unluckiest -- or luckiest -- men in the world. His three brothers are New York City firefighters and were on the scene at the World Trade Center during 9/11. All three survived. Six years later, at the age of 31, Joe Andruzzi was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's Burkitt's lymphoma, a rare and fast-moving cancer. One year after that, Andruzzi was cancer-free and started the Joe Andruzzi Foundation to help cancer patients and their families.

Andruzzi was at the Boston Marathon on Monday because of his foundation. He got up early, took his kids to school and then headed to his fundraiser watch party at Forum, a restaurant on Boylston Street, which boasts of having the best view of the race's finish line. The sun was shining, the air was cool. It was a perfect day for the marathon.

By late Monday afternoon, his party site was a crime scene littered with blood and broken glass. Two bombs ripped through downtown Boston during the marathon, killing three and injuring at least 176. The second bomb exploded somewhere around the patio of the restaurant, a place where Andruzzi and many of his volunteers and loved ones had stood earlier in the day. His good friend Matt Chatham sat there as the explosions started. And miraculously, the former Patriots linebacker was OK, save for some ringing in his ears.

Chatham had to use the speakerphone to talk Tuesday afternoon because he couldn't put the telephone next to his ear. They know it could have been much worse. Chatham's wife, Erin, a vice president with Andruzzi's foundation, was taking pictures for much of the day at the spot where the second bomb went off. But she wasn't there at 2:50 p.m.

Chatham estimated that the spot where they sat was about 15 feet from the blast, yet no one from their party suffered major injuries.

"What we're all trying to put our heads around is how close we were and how little the people within the gated area got hurt," Chatham said. "Most of the people who took the brunt of it were in that sidewalk portion, maybe the first five to 10 feet between the bomb and us. They were almost sort of a human shield."

Andruzzi and Chatham were lucky. So many others weren't.

They met as kids, before 9/11, before the Super Bowls, before pregame security pat downs. Joe Andruzzi and Matt Chatham signed with the Patriots within days of each other in 2000, and forged a friendship after bunking together at the now-defunct End Zone Motel. Their wives would become best friends. And though Chatham and Andruzzi came from different backgrounds -- Chatham was from Iowa, Andruzzi grew up on Staten Island -- they were coming into New England with fairly similar odds.

Both of them played Division II football; neither of them impressed enough to be selected in the NFL draft. Andruzzi's journey went from Southern Connecticut State to Green Bay to Scotland to NFL Europe. When he was cut by the Packers in 2000, he did not look like a man poised for greatness.

But he was a tough guy who placed fifth in the 1999 Pro Football Team Arm Wrestling Championships, and he was reliable. Andruzzi, a 312-pound guard in his playing days, was part of a Patriots offensive line that allowed just 63 sacks over a two-year span.

Chatham, who played college football at the University of South Dakota, became a special-teams star for the Patriots. Like Andruzzi, he toiled away in the shadows. One of his most memorable plays did not make it on television during Super Bowl XXXVIII. Chatham leveled a streaker during the second-half kickoff in a scene that delayed the game but was not aired on TV. After the game, Tom Brady told reporters he was impressed by Chatham's tackle.

Andruzzi and Chatham won three Super Bowl rings together, and remained friends through moves and kids. When Andruzzi planned the fundraiser at the Boston Marathon, there was no doubt that Chatham would be there. For starters, his wife worked for the Joe Andruzzi Foundation. But it was also a way to help a friend.

The Foundation had 21 runners in this year's marathon, and they raised roughly $164,000 to help cancer patients and their families with rent, mortgage and utility payments during financially strapped times. The fundraiser also aided pediatric brain cancer research.

Chatham's family was on a trip to Disneyworld over the weekend, and their flight was delayed because of weather on Sunday night. But he knew how important the fundraiser was. He arrived home at 3 a.m. Monday, and was on Boylston Street by the afternoon.

Sometime after 2 p.m., Andruzzi, his wife Jen and a photographer headed for the finish line. They wanted to be there to greet their runners as they crossed. To commemorate the day. At 2:50 p.m., the first explosion hit Boylston Street, "right in front of us," Andruzzi said.

"It shook us, and I didn't know what it was. I didn't know if it was coming from a restaurant, something exploding in the kitchen. All of a sudden … another explosion went off. Then mayhem began to start."

There was a woman who wasn't at the fundraiser who wound up at Erin Chatham's feet. The woman, Matt Chatham said, was knocked into the building by the explosion. Her foot was severed, and Matt Chatham helped carry her to the back of the building.

There was a man whose skin was on fire. A bystander tried to help by pouring beer on him.

What haunts Chatham most, maybe, is what he saw before the explosions. Many of the people in front of him, the ones a few feet closer to the blast, were kids. Andruzzi couldn't get a hold of Chatham at first -- cellphone connections were down -- but after hours of tracking people down, he accounted for most of his group. His phone eventually regained its connection and started ringing.

The photo of him was being shown around the world. He did not want to talk late Monday. He didn't want to take anything away from the people whom he said were the real heroes of the day, the emergency responders, the runners who went from the finish line to the line to donate blood.

But Andruzzi also didn't want to talk because he had bigger things to do. He had to get home and hug his kids. They range in age from 1 to 15, and they're all he has thought about during the past 36 hours. Same goes for Chatham with his two kids.

"They probably can't figure out why we're hugging them so much," Chatham said, "why we're being so weird around them."

Neither man could sleep much on Monday night. They were haunted by the screams, the blood, the kids' faces. But neither one could give up on humanity, either. Twenty-one runners in their group had trained for months to go 26.2 miles for charity. There was the woman who ran for her mother, who has breast cancer, and the man who got into shape so he could run and help Andruzzi's cause.

"We were incredibly close to the blast," Chatham said, "and we're all still here. We're just very happy that God spared us, and we're trying to figure out why that is. Joe mentioned the foundation. Maybe there's a lot of great things we've still got to do."