My wife says I write about sports too much in this column. No surprise, then, that when I was thinking about Andrew Accardi, who passed away last week at the age of 20, my mind went right to Andrew on the baseball diamond, and the basketball court and the football field.
During a Little League draft of players 12 years ago, I heard the name "Andrew Accardi" for the first time. "Get this guy," my co-coach said. "He's one of the toughest little kids you'll ever see. He'll run through a wall for you. I guarantee, if you pick him, you'll be glad you did."
I did -- and I was. Over the years, I picked him for pretty much every team I coached, right through to high school basketball intramurals.
And though sometimes the wheeling and dealing in the "smoke-filled rooms" of those youth sports drafts can be heated and over-competitive, I'll say this about my fellow coaches: They all knew how much it meant to me to have Andrew on my team, and they'd always be willing to bend the rules, if need be, so I could get him.
I learned early on that Andrew was facing the challenge of pediatric neuroblastoma, a cancer he'd been diagnosed with at age 5. I also learned early on that neither he nor his family really liked to talk about it. Through elementary, middle and high school, he maintained a regimen of treatment, testing and hospital stays while keeping up with his academics and playing baseball, basketball, football and golf. His damn-the-torpedoes spirit inspired a troop of family and friends to form Andrew's Army, a charitable organization that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support neuroblastoma research at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
As more and more people in town became aware of Andrew's situation, there was a tendency among a few to think of him as "that wonderful young boy with the serious health problem." Andrew never bought into that narrative, and his actions made it pretty damn hard for others to do so. In PAL football, he played defensive end, a position usually reserved for hyper-aggressive physical specimens.
In Little League baseball, when I needed a catcher, hardly a job for shrinking violets, he grabbed the gear and dashed behind the plate.
In basketball, his favorite chores were rebounding and scrapping for loose balls.
Everyone who knew him "got" what Andrew was about. His peers certainly did. Though high school- and college-age guys are not known for their ability to emote, here's what his classmate and next-door neighbor Rob G. had to say about him on Facebook:
To my neighbor of 20 years and best friend for countless memories, I will never have such a strong, courageous, or competitive friend like Andrew Accardi again. Ever since your early diagnosis, you still strapped your helmet up every day and carpooled to practice with me, no matter how you were feeling. Not once did I see you hang your head or express defeat.
My own son Robby, also a classmate and teammate of Andrew, posted:
Devastated that we lost one of the toughest, strongest, and happiest kids I have ever met. Everlasting memories of Accardi draining his patented corner jumper against Frankie and Tyler's rec basketball team. Or dominating kids twice his size in football. Or smiling and brightening up the halls of Staples. I'm honored and proud to have grown up with him.
I was talking to Robby about Andrew over the weekend. He told me a story about a pickup basketball game down at Compo Beach just this summer: He said that he, Robby, was captain of a team, and he drafted Andrew really early.
"There were some good players, really big guys, still available, and I was getting these questioning looks. I just said, `Trust me.' So the game starts, and Andrew's rebounding, and diving for loose balls. Then, he's going in for a layup, and gets lit up by the guy defending him. But he still makes the layup. And then he just runs back on defense, with a straight face."
"He was a cool kid," I said.
"He was the man," Robby answered.
I'm hearing a lot of "rest in peace" sentiment directed toward Andrew -- and yes, I hope he is at peace. I'm not so sure I see him resting, though. Kicking butt, more likely.
Hank Herman is a Westport writer.
TO SUPPORT ANDREW'S ARMY
To contribute to Andrew's Army and support of cancer research at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, make checks payable to "Andrew's Army in Support of CHOP" and mail them to: Maura Mitarotondo, Treasurer Andrew's Army, 64 Shorefront Park, Norwalk, CT 06854.