By CBSBoston.com Staff

BOSTON (CBS) —   “I remember that day like it was yesterday.”

That is a common reaction when people reflect on the tragic events of 9/11. For former Patriots offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi, it was one of the most difficult days of his life.

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Andruzzi’s three brothers were all New York City firefighters at the time, and he remembers the long and arduous wait to hear if they had survived the attacks on the Twin Towers.

“My heart was in my throat. I had a gut feeling that one of my brothers was there,” Andruzzi recalled in a sitdown interview with WBZ-TV’s Steve Burton. “It was just a feeling I had and come to find out that my brother Jimmy was one of the first responders and made it to the 25th floor until one of his colleagues had chest pains. That slowed them down enough. They made it down to the lobby and then the walls around them, the towers are all marble, he said they were just cracking around them.

“He remembers just running out of that building and the cloud of smoke chasing them. Once that happened, they stopped, turned around and went back,” said Andruzzi. “Those guys are heroes, running toward the tragedy instead of running away.”

It wasn’t until Tuesday night that Andruzzi received a phone call from his father telling him that his three brothers had survived the attacks and their aftermath. He reported to practice in Foxboro the next day, but football was not his focus.

“I barely slept that night and I just wanted to drive south, pick up my family in New York. The only way to get down there was a bridge or a tunnel and they were closed that day. I came to work the next day at Foxborough Stadium, and I think everyone knew my mind wasn’t there. I couldn’t tell you any plays we ran; I was just going through the motions,” he said.

Andruzzi emotionally spoke with reporters that day, and when the NFL canceled that weekend’s slate of games, he immediately made his way to New York to be with his family.

“I drove straight down to meet with them. After Wednesday, and getting up there on the podium after word got out that I have three brothers who are New York city firemen, it hit me. I broke down and it still gives me chills to this day because many people didn’t make it out of the buildings,” said Andruzzi. “Many people were part of a very bad thing that day; a tragedy we’ll never forget.”

When football resumed a week later, the Patriots hosted the rival New York Jets. Before the game, Andruzzi’s brothers were honored at midfield. It provided a moment of healing for everyone in attendance, and the country as a whole.

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“The image of them going out to midfield, everyone holding the small flags in the stands, and all of Beantown cheering New Yorkers — that doesn’t happened often,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. “It was a great moment. It helped our country come together, seeing New York and Boston do that.”

Andruzzi was the last player out of the tunnel that day, and he emerged waiving two American flags.

“That was a spur of the moment thing,” he explained. “There were two flags taped to the wall next to me as I ran out, and spur of the moment I grabbed them off the wall. They weren’t taped on that good, but I held them high in the air knowing my father and brothers were out there.

“They were standing out there not for the Patriots or the Jets, they had their uniforms on for all the first responders, all the workers who perished that day and their families,” recalled Andruzzi. “The cheers went through my bones. Probably the toughest game I had to play in, because of the butterflies. Knowing the next three hours that we had to move on, that it was our opportunity to take people’s minds off it. Time heals and being able to go out and do my job, have people think about something else is, sometimes, it was an honor. To have my brothers there cheering, following along all year and being able to hold that trophy up, it was a great feeling.”

That trophy he’s talking about is, of course, the first Lombardi Trophy that the Patriots won just a few months later. It was a win that shocked the country, with the underdog Patriots defeating the powerhouse St. Louis Rams, and a moment that Andruzzi got to share with his family.

“For us, that whole year, football is a long grueling season and that year was the most long and grueling for myself, my wife, my parents and my brothers. Just being able to get to what we were able to do that year, and to have them there when Adam [Vinatieri] kicked that football through the uprights – the first thing I did was congratulate everybody and then I looked for my family that was there, my wife, my parents, my brothers. They’re part of that trophy as much as my teammates and their families,” he said.

Andruzzi has overcome a lot throughout his life. An undrafted rookie, he fought for a chance to play in the NFL. Shortly after his playing days ended, he was diagnosed with cancer and did not think he would survive. But he won that battle too, and along with his wife, founded The Joe Andruzzi Foundation to support cancer patients and their families.

The 46-year-old is doing everything he can now to pay it forward and help those that need it the most. As he reflects on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, he has a simple message for everyone.

“Don’t forget. Remember how it was 20 years ago. We don’t want that to ever happen again. And to come together,” he said. “We’re all people; doesn’t matter black, white, purple, yellow, male, female or whatever you are. We’re all people, we’re all products of a God, some God, and there is only so much time we have on this earth. Use it wisely. Put the hate aside and live life, be happy and smile every day. Keep moving forward and take life one day at a time.”

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“Make every second of every day count; time is the most valuable thing we have on this earth and we all need to use it wisely,” he said.

CBSBoston.com Staff