Color guard member died morning of championship game after year-long fight with cancer
By David Miller
Stephanie Cartagena couldn’t wait to return to championship form.
As a member of The University of Alabama Million Dollar Band color guard, Cartagena had grown accustomed to performing at Southeastern Conference championship games and College Football Playoff games after her freshman year.
“She was so happy to do what she loved at Alabama,” said Maybel Dunaway, Cartagena’s mother. “She felt like she was in another world when she was there.”
Cartagena would never return to the field with her band mates.
Cartagena was diagnosed with brain cancer on Dec. 3, 2016, the day of UA’s 54-16 win over the University of Florida in the SEC Championship Game. She underwent surgery three days later and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment in both Birmingham and her hometown of Mobile. The cancer later spread to her spine, and she underwent additional surgeries in May of 2017.
Cartagena would attend the 2017 football playoff games, but she was unable to perform. She re-enrolled at UA in August but withdrew several weeks later as her prognosis worsened. Cartagena would lose her fight with cancer the morning of Alabama’s comeback win over the University of Georgia in the College Football Playoff championship game on Monday, Jan. 8. She was 20.
Cartagena’s family had watched her perform in the color guard since her days at Davidson High School in Mobile, where she first picked up a flag in 10th grade. Her family shuttled her to tryouts at UA and later attended home games and the Million Dollar Band’s special performances.
Cartagena wasn’t in Atlanta for UA’s storybook win, but it felt like she was, Dunaway said. In the two-week stretch of the playoff games, Million Dollar Band members wore a silver ribbon on the left side of their uniform to support Cartagena. The University of Georgia’s Redcoat Marching Band learned of the tribute and followed suit for its performance in Atlanta.
“I know Stephanie was there, doing what she loves,” Dunaway said. “I can’t even explain it. [The band’s tribute] just means a lot for us and helped us a lot, to see she was there and could inspire people. It’s something we didn’t expect, and it meant a lot to her.”
Color guard member and co-captain Lena Paradiso originally created the ribbons for members of the color guard. Then, Aimee Gueret, teammate and Cartagena’s close friend, helped grow the tribute to include all members of the Million Dollar Band. The pair made more than 500 ribbons for the Sugar Bowl, UA’s playoff semifinal win over Clemson University.
“We did the ribbons because it was the right thing to do,” Gueret said. “We didn’t know it would grow into the story it’s become, something bigger than we could have imagined. But Stephanie deserves this. She’s the strongest woman I know.”
The end of football season concludes a rollercoaster for UA’s football team and Million Dollar Band after missing the SEC title game and narrowly making the playoff field. It also ends Cartagena’s comeback bid to return to the field, which Gueret said motivated her in her fight against cancer.
“We were at sectionals one day learning routines, and Stephanie was there running laps, trying to get her stamina back up,” Gueret said. “But it was when she picked up the flag, tossed it and caught it … she smiled and looked completely comfortable spinning that flag. I think it helped her having a goal in recovery to reach.”
Gueret and her band mates continued the championship tradition of delivering mementos from each game and city by placing confetti from Atlanta in Cartagena’s casket during her funeral.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.