About four years ago, then-15-year-old Gianna Cirella decided she wanted to be an Aggie.
What started from a Google search of possible college destinations became a curious passion for Texas A&M by the high school soccer player from Warwick, Rhode Island. She became determined to make it to Aggieland, said her mother, Tara.
In 2017, her junior year in high school, Cirella died after a sudden 20-day battle with sepsis. She never attended A&M, but became a member of the Aggie family nonetheless, thanks to a gesture from Texas A&M women’s soccer coach G Guerrieri.
A deadly infection
A run-of-the-mill sore throat developed while Cirella was at her high school soccer practice on Oct. 13, 2017. Three days later, Cirella was put on antibiotics for an infection in her throat. She returned to the doctor the next week with trouble breathing, which would be diagnosed as pneumonia.
The Cirellas made their way to a children’s hospital, where doctors discovered an abnormality in a blood culture. While leaving the emergency room, Cirella went into septic shock and lost consciousness. Sepsis is an improper response to chemicals released by the body to fight infection, which can damage organs, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Four days later, doctors amputated her dominant right leg in an effort to slow the spreading infection.
“We almost kind of forget about that part of the story sometimes,” Tara Cirella said. “That sounds so weird, but we were trying to save her life, so we overcame it so quickly. It was super, super traumatic for us. ... She was a junior. She was in her prime. Here we were making the decision to amputate her right leg.”
She died 17 days after going into septic shock.
The A&M connection
Cirella would have graduated from Toll Gate High School this spring. The school decided to leave a seat empty during the graduation ceremony in her honor. Her family wanted to fill the seat with items that represented her life, Tara Cirella said.
Cirella’s father, Stanley, held a friendship with a relative of Texas A&M women’s soccer coach G Guerrieri. That relative reached out to Guerrieri to see if there was anything he could do for the family, Guerrieri said.
The package that Guerrieri sent to the family completed the A&M connection Gianna Cirella desired.
Included in the package was a 12th Man towel, an A&M soccer scarf and a pennant, along with a personal note from Guerrieri.
“All of us grieve with you on the sudden passing of Gianna this year. As a father of a graduating high school senior, I can only imagine what y’all are going through. We are impressed and proud of Gianna’s accomplishments as a goalkeeper and understand she was an admirer of our Aggie soccer program,” the note read. “That said, I would like to make her an honorary member of our team and for y’all to always think of yourselves as members of our Aggie soccer family.”
Tara Cirella said she couldn’t immediately process the impact of the letter.
“I just started going through it and I read the letter from Coach G and I saw all the stuff and, to be quite honest with you, I put it back in the package for a few days,” Tara Cirella said. “I had no idea how it happened and it was so painful, so I put it in Gianna’s room, and a few days later I went in and I read through it again and I really came to understand what had really happened. Coach G had really reached out to us, and I guess I really put it all together and understood it.”
‘A cool place to go’
Tara Cirella said Gianna’s interest in becomding an Aggie was sudden, and within a week of discovering the unversity, she had purchased a Texas A&M lanyard.
She told her family, “It just looks cool. It just looks like a cool place to go,” Tara Cirella said.
“For Gianna, that was enough of a draw,” Tara Cirella said “That’s how she lived her life, ‘It’s cool. I want to go check it out.’ ”
As letters from various colleges made their way to the Cirella mailbox this spring, the package from A&M was the only one her parents chose to open.
“It kind of became a special thing that we really do have a tie there now, even though it’s not what we thought we were going to have. It means a lot to us,” she said. “It really does.”
The 12th Man towel sat on Cirella’s empty graduation chair this spring, under her A&M lanyard.
The 12th Man
Even before she discovered Texas A&M, Cirella had a connection with Aggieland, wearing number 12 on her soccer jersey. As a sign of her place with the program, incoming Aggie freshman Ali Russell, who will wear No. 12, will wear a purple rubber bracelet that says #GiStrong this season, Guerrieri said. The bracelet was given to the program by the Cirella family.
“I thought it was just the right thing to do,” Guerrieri said. “And there were so many connections, too. It seemed like, you know, fate had a hand in it.”
Shortly after her death, the family established the Gianna Cirella Memorial Fund to raise funds and awareness for sepsis research and families affected by the disease. More information on the #GiStrong fund, including how donations can be made, can be found on the foundation’s website, GiStrong.org.
“I promised her that I was going to change this and that I wasn’t going to let this keep happening to kids,” Tara Cirella said. “While we were in the hospital for those 17 days, I learned how God-awful it is and what a common disease it is and how many deaths happen.”
While the Cirella family continues to raise awareness of the illness that took their daughter, Gianna’s memory remains vibrant. Much of her bedroom remains as the soccer goalie left it, including an unpacked soccer bag on the bed. Across the room, her A&M lanyard hangs from the same hook Gianna used to keep track of her keys.
The A&M towel has been added to the back of her desk chair.
“You know, the fact that we now have a 12th Man above is, is kind of nice,” Guerrieri said. “We feel like we have a little bit of heavenly inspiration for the team — a little bit of a guardian angel on our shoulders.”