ANDOVER — Fresh from yet another suspenseful, last-minute victory on the gridiron, five Patriots came to town Thursday night hoping to score a different kind of victory: Tackling the opioid epidemic that has killed thousands of people – most of them young – and brought heartbreak to countless families.
Running back James White, who scored three touchdowns — including the winning score — in Super Bowl LI, was the first to arrive at the Karma restaurant. White and cornerback Jonathan Jones, defensive back Brandon King, outside linebacker Marquis Flowers and defensive end Eric Lee were the guests of honor at a party that raised thousands of dollars for Andover Cares.
This local nonprofit group provides financial support to programs and organizations that work to prevent addiction and help those who struggle with substance abuse.
“We are here to raise awareness for a great cause,” said White, who drew applause as soon as he walked into the restaurant, which with 110 guests was close to its seating capacity. He and his teammates, he said, want to encourage people to “stay on the right path” and avoid using drugs — especially the opiates that have killed so many people.
Asked if he expects to repeat his feat of Feb. 5, when he was a major part of the Patriots’ come-from-way-behind 34-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons, he said, “We’ll see. We have a long way to go.”
Karma specializes in Chinese, Korean and Thai food. Owner Iverson Guo and his employees take special pride in their sushi — and Guo put the five Patriots to work, teaching them how to prepare this delicacy.
The five Pats donned uniforms of a different sort, white chef suits and hats. With dozens of cameras capturing their every move, they went to work preparing the chow. Guests bought raffle tickets that entitled them to sushi made by a Patriot, among many other things.
Jake Ruthazer, who graduated from Andover High School last year and attends Marist College, won a sushi dish prepared by Brandon King.
“It was very good,” he said.
Doug Mercurio, accompanied by his sons, Steven, 11, and Eric, 7, also won a helping of King’s sushi. The three of them were thrilled to have their picture taken with the defensive back.
Mercurio admitted he would have preferred a helmet.
The Patriots signed loads of helmets, jerseys and other items, which were then raffled off. The players patiently posed with guests taking selfies.
King, for example, spent several minutes posing with guests, many of them children. When people of all ages asked him to sign their jerseys, footballs or whatever, he seemed happy to oblige. This was a family-oriented fundraiser and for King, it was also a family affair.
He was accompanied by his wife, Marissa, and their infant son, Kayden.
The players also took questions from the crowd. White was asked to name the toughest player he ever had to face.
“That’s a tough question,” he said.
Cornerback Jones, who has made many a tackle in his career, was asked how to be effective on the field.
“It helps to be bad,” he said.
Laura Farley of Tewksbury was one of many guests who had a picture taken with King.
“It was cool,” she said. She added she respected King for taking the time to sign autographs for the children who attended.
“This event is close to my heart,” said Al Ruthazer, chairperson of Andover Cares and Jake’s father. He estimated the party raised about $10,000.
Andover Cares aids the work of Sobhan Namvar, the town’s community support coordinator, who helps addicts, he said.
Paul Salafia, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said Andover is making progress in the fight against opiate addiction. He noted several people have died from overdoses in the last few years. So far this year, he said, there has been one overdose death in this community.
“I am so proud of this town,” he said.