15 Years Later — Never Forgotten

Prior to the Patriots-Jets game at Foxborough Stadium on Sept. 23, 2001, New England Patriots’ offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi (far right), and his three New York City firefighter brothers, as well as their father (third from left), participate in a ceremony in memory of the people lost on September 11. Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Engulfed in feelings of overwhelming emotion and long-awaited relief, New England Patriot Joe Andruzzi burst through the doors of his parents’ Staten Island home in the days following the September 11, 2001 attacks to find Jimmy, the youngest of his three brothers, standing tall — his thumb and index finger held high with just a sliver of space between their tips.

He was that close.

Jimmy Andruzzi, along with his older brothers, Billy and Marc, was a New York City firefighter. When the attacks of September 11, 2001 claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent victims, injured more than 6,000 others, and left a nation devastated in its wake, Jimmy was a first responder in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

“There were no words I needed to say,” Joe said. “That’s how close he was.”

Twelve days later, those feelings of distress and concern were trumped by a sense of pride as Jimmy, Billy and Marc Andruzzi stood strong at the 50-yard line inside Foxboro Stadium.

On this afternoon of September 23, 2001, the NFL returned to play after a week of postponement following the tragedy, ushering back in a sense of normalcy as its cities began to heal. The Andruzzi brothers, and all heroes and victims alike, were honored during the team’s pregame ceremonies that day.

Andruzzi brothers stand at the 50-yard line inside Foxboro Stadium. Photo by David Silverman/New England Patriots

In the minutes leading up to the Patriots’ Week 3 kickoff against the New York Jets, Joe ran onto the playing field, surrounded by over 60,000 supporters, the shafts of two American flags locked in each of his grips as his country’s colors flew above his silver helmet.

“I knew my brothers were being cheered for out there on the 50-yard line, waiting for me to come out, and everybody knew my story,” Joe said. “The fans knew what my brothers stood for out there and all the loved ones that were cherished that day. As a group, as a country, we were getting stronger.”

It was a moment that represented resilience, honor and unity — the same values the football team from New England would carry through the rest of the 2001 season, ultimately bringing home its first ever Super Bowl championship behind the theme, “We are all Patriots.”

Fifteen years later, Joe looks back on those moments, just as he does each year and each day, though not much has changed.

“It’s been a memory for 14 years,” Joe said this summer. “Now coming up on the 15th year, you’re just always thinking back to that day and seeing some of the images that have become photographic memories. You get through by staying close to your loved ones, talking to them, and being by their side, but it’s no different of a feeling [this year]. I still get the same feelings [I got] when everything went down.”

On that infamous Tuesday, it took Joe and his family nearly six hours to receive confirmation that his brothers were alive amidst the chaos in Manhattan. One brother gave his parents’ phone number to someone in the streets and asked the person to call and let them know he was OK. Still, the uncertainty and conditions his siblings were facing had the Patriots guard far from at ease.

“Once they cancelled the games that week, which was a great decision by the NFL, I couldn’t get home because the bridges and tunnels were closed, and trying to get home to Staten Island, that’s the only way possible,” Joe recalled.

After finally reuniting with his brothers and family, it became clear to Joe what mattered most in times of tragedy.

It was that same type of strength and togetherness that pushed the Patriots through the rest of the 2001 campaign, beginning with that Sept. 23 game. When starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe absorbed a big hit and was forced to leave the contest, his untested backup, Tom Brady, took center stage.

The Patriots lost that game on the scoreboard, but gained more in strength and solidarity. Joe said he still remembers the way his team followed the lead of its country and unified in the face of adversity.

“One of our leaders went down and in came another one,” he said. “You can’t just stop everything. You have to keep moving forward. I think we came together, as our country did. We came together as a team, stronger, leaning on one another.”

After starting the year 0–2, New England rallied and finished the regular season with an 11–5 record. A couple of clutch field goals in the snow and some special teams’ scoring plays later, the underdog Patriots were on their way to the Louisiana Superdome to face “The Greatest Show on Turf,” the St. Louis Rams, in Super Bowl XXXVI.

“I remember prior to the game, in days leading up to it, my eldest brother, Billy telling me, ‘It’s destiny, Joe. You guys are the Patriots. American Patriots. You guys are red, white and blue. It’s your year,’” Joe said.

He was right. A dominant defensive effort, coupled with a Brady TD pass and a game-winning 48-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri on the game’s final play gave New England a thrilling 20–17 upset victory over the Rams. As confetti fell from the ceiling and the NFL presented New England with the Lombardi Trophy, Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft realized the victory was for a group much larger than his team and coaching staff.

Fans at Super Bowl XXXVI look on during halftime show while a list of people who died in the September 11th terrorist attack scrolls behind them at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. Photo by Brian Bahf/Getty Images

“Spirituality, faith and democracy are the cornerstones of our country,” Kraft proclaimed. “We are all Patriots. And tonight, the Patriots are World Champions.”

The world-champion New England Patriots restored feelings of positivity and hope following a time of horror and heartbreak, and they exhibited a team-first mentality that continues to define the organization’s character 15 years later.

That, not Super Bowl wins, just may be their greatest strength.

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