The morning of Jan. 8 was a time for members of the University of Alabama's Million Dollar Marching Band to get ready for the performance of their lives.
And it would be, as Alabama would go on to pull off a stunning comeback victory against the Georgia Bulldogs to claim their fifth championship title in less than a decade.
But those Million Dollar Band members faced that fateful morning with a burst of terrible news: one of their own, junior color guard member Stephanie Cartagena, had died after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. She was 20 years old.
She had been a color guard member in the bands of both Davidson High School in Mobile, Ala., and at the University of Alabama, which her obituary describes as her "greatest passion."
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Members of both the Georgia Redcoat band and Alabama's Million Dollar Band wore ribbons on their uniforms as tributes to Cartagena during the spectacular playoff game Monday night.
"It was an honor to witness our own Wonder Woman’s perseverance throughout her journey and stand by her side while she fought on. Stephanie taught all of us to live happily and cherish each moment we get with each other," Alabama's Million Dollar Band Color Guard wrote on Facebook Tuesday. "While her time with us was short, the legacy she left this team with will continue on for centuries."
"I know she's waving her flag in heaven, rooting for Alabama," Cartagena’s father, Carlos, told WPMI.
Cartagena was rushed to surgery in 2016 after a period of migraines and vomiting, and was diagnosed with a brain tumor before undergoing a 10-hour surgery, according to CollegeMarching.com
Ever the fighter, she was still driven to travel with the band to the Peach Bowl and even to the National Championship last season, the site reported.
“In December of 2016, after the Iron Bowl, she had her first surgery and right after that, she wanted to go to the National Championship,” Cartagena’s mother Maybel Dunaway told WPMI.
“The first thing she told them after the surgery was I want to be there for the color guard and she was there for the game.”
Stephanie had another surgery in the spring and trained with the band in the summer of 2017, and did as much as she could for the fall season, CollegeMarching.com reported, even winning the Chirs Hainsey: Ultimate Team Player award.
But when another tumor was found around Thanksgiving, the family knew there was only so much fighting left to do.
In her obituary, Cartagena was described as "a woman filled with light" who "touched the heart and souls of every person she came in contact with."
"The person she was here at Davidson and I hear the same statements from people at Bama, that she affected people positively and just someone you want to be around," Cartagena's former high school band director Tim Beattie told Fox 10.
Cartagena may not have been with the band when they pushed the Crimson Tide to their win Monday, but the band and her color guard family were with her in spirit.
"“I tell the students in the band that when we’re recruiting students and parents, yes, it’s important that we march well and play well, but the network of friends and family that you develop in an organization like this is probably the most important reason to be in it,” Million Dollar Band director Ken Ozello told WVUA 23.
“And the Million Dollar Band family was able to give Stephanie and her family a good deal of support through such trying times.”
Visitation for Stephanie will be held on Friday, January 12, 2018 from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. at Pine Crest Funeral Home at 1939 Dauphin Island Parkway, Mobile, Alabama 36605. A funeral mass will begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday, January 13, 2018 at Pine Crest Funeral Home.