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Howie Long will be the honorary chairman and spokesman for Andrew's Buddies.

Help from Howie

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The people we acclaim as heroes don't always live up to expectations, says NFL analyst and former Los Angeles Raider Howie Long. In his long career in professional sports, he's seen legions of athletes put on pedestals, only to quickly fall off.

But now, Long says, "We've come to realize the world is full of heroes. And none of them carry a ball."

He's talking about Richmond resident Andrew Slay. Andrew, 15, has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), an inherited degenerative disorder. He's the impetus behind Andrew's Buddies, a national organization his parents founded to find a cure for the disease.

On Nov. 13, Long takes on the role of honorary chairman and spokesman for Andrew's Buddies. He will help the group raise money for research.

"We just couldn't imagine that anyone would be better," says Martha Slay, Andrew's mother, who started the group 10 years ago with her husband, Joe. "He would be able to empathize with the pain of a parent."

Long has three sons. When he learned that SMA was the No. 1 inherited killer of children under 2, he says, he couldn't help thinking "God forbid, what if?"

Andrew was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) in 1987, when he was 14 months old. The disease becomes apparent at an early age, when children begin to have trouble swallowing, breathing and using their arms and legs.

Long says he first became interested in the group when "a friend of a friend" told Long about Andrew. He was shocked to hear how common SMA is, and thought it might be a cause for which he could speak.

Early in the summer, Andrew and his family visited Long in his Charlottesville home. "It's remarkable how normal he really is," Long says. "He's just like one of my sons."

Andrew, in turn, was awed to meet one of his childhood idols. His mother, Martha Slay, recalls when her son was 6 and incessantly replayed NFL highlight videos featuring Long. "When we talked about Howie Long, it was not like 'Howie who?'" she says with a chuckle.

So the Slays and the Longs hit it off, and Long gladly agreed to contribute his name and fame to the cause. With his help, Andrew's Buddies will launch a fund-raiser in the spring, Slay says, to continue supporting research that could find a cure for SMA.

"When you're doing OK in life, there's a tendency to take everything for granted," Long says. But since meeting Andrew, he realizes, "every day that passes is a day that hopefully something can be

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