Color guard members "Think Grey" during national championship performance

Color guard members
Photo courtesy of Katie James Photography

The national championship win for the Crimson Tide brought a close to a bittersweet day for members of the Million Dollar Band. A member of the color guard, 20-year-old Stephanie Cartagena, lost her battle to brain cancer in the early hours of Jan. 8. 

Maddie Roman, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering, and her fellow teammates were informed after news of Cartagena’s condition reached staff members. 

“The night before the national championship, we got called to a team meeting and they didn’t tell us what it was about,” Roman said. “We were really nervous because it was 11 at night, the night before the championship. We went down to the lobby area of the hotel and the instructors told us about her situation, how she wasn’t doing well and might not make it through the night. There were a lot of tears that night.”

Cartagena was diagnosed early in December 2016 after experiencing painful headaches. Having been ill earlier in the semester, she visited the Student Health Center for help, focused on getting better to continue performing on the field and in the upcoming championship game.

“Initially, she went to the health center and got a scan. They had sent her straight to UAB Hospital and the following Tuesday she had a surgery,” said Aimee Gueret, a senior majoring in political science, English and journalism. “After finals, I drove over to go see her and the first thing she had asked me while still under anesthesia and not all there, ‘Do I still have a spot on winterguard?’ Her main concern throughout the whole process was getting back to color guard.”

The diagnosis of the disease did not hold Cartagena back from continuing to be a part of the color guard. As chemotherapy treatments continued and she was unable to perform in field shows, she continued to try and stay in shape for the day she would be able to return to a performance spot. 

“She was well enough to come to practices, but she wasn’t really able to practice with us,” Roman said. “She did what she could and when she couldn’t, she would run laps to make sure to keep in shape.”

After being diagnosed, a GoFundMe page was established to help with the family’s expenses for treatments, and a member of the team designed T-shirts sporting the words “Think Grey” to raise funds and show support for their teammate. 

Cartagena’s positive attitude toward her illness and the strength she displayed earned her the nickname “Wonder Woman” among friends and family. 

“Throughout her entire recovery and journey, she would never complain about having a brain tumor, she would always complain about not being able to do guard,” Gueret said. “It was very hard for someone to feel bad for her because she didn’t feel bad for herself.”

The Million Dollar Band and the University of Georgia Redcoat Marching Band showed solidarity for Cartagena's family by wearing grey ribbons on their uniforms to the championship game. Color guard members had dedicated their shows to Cartagena all season in solidarity for their teammate, but that final performance at the national championship carried a different meaning than their previous shows had that season. 

“We would all circle up before performances and say ‘Do it for Stephanie,’ because she would want to be here so bad,” Gueret said. “At the national championship, the dynamic changed from something sad to something positive because we knew she was there with us in spirit and watching over us. We kept saying she had the best seat in the house and what a great first game for her in heaven.”

Donations for the Cartagena family can be sent through the GoFundMe page here. 

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