Students flooded into the classroom and were greeted by fate's gift to a school day: the substitute teacher. With everyone taking longer than usual to get in their seats after the cheers and jokes, 15 year-old Henry Andrade hopped into the room on his one good leg with the aid of crutches. Wearing a flat-brimmed hat and crisp, creaseless sneakers to match, the teacher followed protocol and asked Henry if he could remove his hat. Quickly taking the defensive and responding with indignation, a couple loyal friends protested against the "sub's" request.
"He just got treated for cancer! He can wear it!"
Sensing the teacher's embarrassment after receiving a red-faced apology, Henry unleashed his patented, brilliant smile and waved down his friends.
"Guys, chill. How was he supposed to know?"
The nervous "sub" was grateful. In a brief, first interaction, the teacher learned all anyone needed to know about Henry Andrade: he quickly impacted everyone he ever met with his calm attitude, unique style and of course that smile.
With a passion for playing sports and helping to inspire others, Henry embodied a coach's dream in a high school athlete. After playing soccer his whole life, a form of bone cancer common in adolescence called, osteosarcoma, settled in Henry's femur when he was 14. The ensuing surgery to remove the cancer resulted in a steel rod, a permanent limp and a change in sports. He may have limped on land, but he glided in the water as a member of the North Providence High School Cougars' swim team.
The following year, now a junior, the cancer came back. He knew doctors needed to remove his right clavicle and a portion of his left lung, but Henry refused surgery until after the Division III swim meet. Swimming in the freestyle and backstroke events, Henry scored points for his team at the divisional tournament, and more admirably, inspired every other Cougars' swimmer to be their best, even at their worst. North Providence won the Division III title that year.
Henry never fell behind in the water, or in the classroom over those last two years of high school. After graduating on time and with his fellow Cougars' class this past June, Henry enrolled at the University of Rhode Island in the fall. Forging new friendships and hardening the old, he immersed himself in college life. Unfortunately, halfway through his first semester studying kinesiology, cancer again began attacking Henry's body; this time at a more rapid pace. Forced to leave school, Henry found himself back in the Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, RI.
While spending time in and out of the hospital, Henry was paid a visit by New England Patriots Pro Bowl Defensive Tackle Vince Wilfork back in November. The only thing in the room bigger than the (generously listed) 325 pound Wilfork, was Henry's smile. As the Patriots battled on the gridiron, Henry fended off cancer with an immeasurable strength. While the Patriots surged on the football field, winning ten of their final eleven games to clinch a bye in the playoffs, Henry's health began deteriorating further.
During their playoff bye week, another Patriots player stopped in to lift Henry's spirits. Defensive Back, Devin McCourty, surprised Henry with a visit, and signed the gloves and cleats he wore during the Patriots final regular season game. It took Henry no time to make yet another friend. The two exchanged phone numbers, and were soon following each other on Twitter.
Four days later, on January 7th, Henry passed away. Although unquestioned, the hundreds of friends and family there to pay respect at the wake proved Henry's impact on nearly every person he came in contact with. Amongst those who waited their turn, which equated to hours, to say a final goodbye to their beloved friend was McCourty. He spoke to Henry's family and dedicated his team's playoffs in Henry's honor. McCourty tweeted: "RIP @TheRealHenny94 I pray ur resting now...I'll always remember ur smile and the fight I saw in u #TeamHenry."
Less than 48 hours after McCourty attended Henry's wake, he took the field as the Patriots hosted the the Houston Texans in their divisional playoff game. On the opening kickoff, the Texans kick returner, Danieal Manning, found a seam in the defense, and broke free at midfield. The closest Patriots' player trailed about eight yards behind. As an entire stadium of cheering fans deflated, one player accelerated. Just as Henry walked with a limp, but glided in the water, McCourty seemed to fly on the field as he chased down the Texans return man. McCourty's saving play prevented a touchdown, and set the tone in a game the Patriots dominated from that point forward, winning 41-28.
There is an old cliche that people love sports so much because they mirror life. This story is about the life of a survivor, fighter, family, community and a professional sports franchise who did not mirror sports, but were enlivened by them. It is also a simple, biased remembrance by someone honored to call Henry his friend. I was that substitute teacher.
The Patriots will take the field Sunday in the AFC Championship hoping it's the next step in ultimately winning the Super Bowl and being remembered above all their peers. Consider it another chase from behind for Devin McCourty and the New England Patriots: Henry Andrade is already up in that rarified air, smiling down on everybody.
Join Devin McCourty and the rest of #TeamHenry, Donations can be sent to: "Team Henry Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 114132, North Providence, RI 02911." 100% of your donation will go to The Tomorrow Fund, Pediatric Cancer Research, NPHS Scholarship in Henry's Memory and the St. Thomas Church Food Pantry.