MEMPHIS, Tenn. – By now, you’ve probably heard the stories about the sort of city Memphis is.
Tough. Hard-working. Blue collar.
For Anna Della Rosa, it’s those characteristics that set the Bluff City apart as a community and a sports town.
“Memphis just has this resiliency to it that you really don’t find in other cities in a sense that we know we’ve come a long way, and we know there’s still work to be done as a city,” said Della Rosa recently. “I think the pride that people have in the city and the sports that are here, win or lose, I think that die-hard fandom is really inspiring to be part of.”
Those words could also be used to describe Della Rosa herself. Having moved to the city with her Argentine parents when she was 10 years old, the nature of Memphis and its community ingrained itself and shaped the Christian Brothers University soccer player, making Della Rosa a reflection of the city she represents.
That determination also proved both a blessing and a curse last year when Della Rosa was faced with a life-and-death situation.
Now, looking back, she knows the symptoms of leukemia were there. But back when she first started experiencing them in January of 2018, there was always another explanation for what had started to happen within her body.
“They came in different ways,” Della Rosa said. “For example, in my soccer workouts, I’d be leading a certain workout – like stairs, for example – and my legs would just go completely numb to the point where after I’d finished the lap or whatever we were doing, after I’d finish I would collapse because I had nothing holding me up.
The tingling sensation of them going out was what I later found out was that I just wasn’t producing red blood cells to the point where the oxygen wasn’t rejuvenating itself, and so I was losing oxygen in my legs, I was losing oxygen in my head, but I was too stubborn to stop, so I’d keep doing my workouts, keep doing whatever, and I’d just collapse at the end. I blamed it on my asthma, I didn’t think it was anything bigger than what it was.
Then in the summer I had really bad night sweats, and if you Google it that’s one of the symptoms of cancer is night sweats, it’s an indicator, but of course I didn’t want to be the person who Googled, ‘what does this mean, why am I having night sweats, oh my gosh, I have cancer’, I didn’t want to diagnose myself with cancer, and also because it was the summer, it’s hot outside, so that’s why I’m sweating in my sleep.”
Memphis 901 FC Head Coach Tim Mulqueen donates platelets while being visited by former 901 FC intern Anna Della Rosa, who was recently diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. | Photo courtesy Memphis 901 FC
And so, Della Rosa continued to go full out, the only way she knew. And given her ties to the local soccer community – in addition to competing for Christian Brothers, Della Rosa had been a starter for state high school power Houston High during its perfect 22-0 state championship season in 2015 – that meant getting involved with the new professional soccer club in town.
Working alongside friend and current Memphis 901 FC Operations Manager Lauren Magdefrau during the club’s 2018 USL League Two season, the desire and ability that Della Rosa showed the club’s leadership over those summer months made her a key asset as Memphis built toward its first professional season.
“She understood the game of soccer, she was willing to work, did gameday operations, and she was just a wonderful addition,” said 901 FC Sporting Director Andrew Bell. “I knew that she would be someone that we would turn to again for the USL Championship team.
“When you’ve been around gameday situations you can tell quickly the people who are going to fit in and the ones that don’t really want to do the work, and she was in the former category.”
Della Rosa worked gamedays, while also coaching and interning at St. Jude Children’s Hospital before returning for her junior season at Christian Brothers. There, the physical toll of workouts that had been evident during the spring continued to manifest themselves. Athletic Trainer Angie Ziolkoski suggested they test her oxygen levels, and when the results came back it brought up another red flag.
“You’re not supposed to lose oxygen no matter how tired you are in a workout,” said Della Rosa. “It was showing I was losing two units of oxygen in-between every set of running sprints, and that was really bad.”
Visits to a cardiologist, a pulmonologist and a neurologist followed, but the first big clue as to what was going on happened as Della Rosa visited a doctor looking for something to help her sinuses. A low level of platelets merited further investigation. When Della Rosa returned a month later for her next check-up, the news was worse.
“In that month my platelets had dropped by half to 40,” said Della Rosa. “To give you an indication, a healthy range is 200 and above, and my platelets were originally at 90 during the season and then at 40 at the end of the season.”
Weakened platelet levels weren’t only a concern when it came to Della Rosa’s overall health, it was even greater when she stepped on the field for the Buccaneers. A bad challenge or injury could have caused Della Rosa to bleed out on the field with her body unable to produce proper blood clots due to its weakened state. The fact Della Rosa was able to record six goals and four assists in 13 games for the Bucs while under such duress is remarkable in itself, but once the season was over, Della Rosa and her family knew they had to figure out what was causing her fatigue and illness.
During the second week in December, while taking her finals exams for the semester, Della Rosa got news she certainly hadn’t expected.
“It all happened really fast,” she said. “I got tested with the biopsy and I wasn’t supposed to know for two weeks my results, but the cancer had already so spread throughout my body that they knew within 24 hours that I had leukemia. This was actually during my finals week, so they called me during finals and said, ‘yeah, I know you were supposed to find out in two weeks, but we already know you have leukemia, you need to be here tomorrow at St. Jude.’ I was like, ‘what?’ It all happened really fast, it happened in a span of 48 hours.”
As quickly as the process of treatment began, so did the response from 901 FC. Magdefrau and Bell visited immediately, while Head Coach Tim Mulqueen and others on the club’s staff who had gotten to know Della Rosa over the previous five months were quick to donate platelets that would help try to strengthen her body.
“It was honestly a shock to the system,” said Mulqueen of being told the news. “The next move was to [figure out] what can we do right away? And that initial move, which I’ve never done before, was to donate platelets. I’ve never even donated blood before, but you know she’s the one going through what she is going through, and the least we can do is that.”
Mulqueen was joined by other members of 901 FC’s growing staff in donating and visiting regularly to maintain the connection Della Rosa had built with her friends and colleagues.
“I wanted something tangible that we can do to show Anna that she was very important to us, and that we were willing to you know give up ourselves to help her,” said Marketing Director Travis Lamprecht. “It was all about helping her, so we went as a group to donate platelets, and I was one of the fortunate ones who had it accepted, so Anna received my platelets, which was great. It felt like we were actually helping her get better. Seeing the effects right away, it was really all of us saying we’re not just going to have lip service here or just be supportive, which we will be, but we are actually going to do something on the ground to kind of have a direct effect to on her health.”
The impact of seeing the friends she had made through 901 FC rally around her was crucial for Della Rosa as her treatment at St. Jude began.
“Andrew and Lauren, they came the day I was admitted into St. Jude, so that was very special for them to come and see me that day, and ever since then they’ve come every other week,” said Della Rosa. “It was the support I definitely needed for the whole organization to be behind me and say, ‘if you need platelets, we’ll come and donate platelets, if you need this, we’ll come and do this.’”
Soon enough it was 901 FC’s players who were making the visits, with Bell organizing a tour of the world-renowned St. Jude facility soon after they arrived in the city.
“We took the team into St. Jude to do a tour so they could understand what’s going on there and also know why we put that logo on the team jersey,” said Bell. “It’s a huge part of Memphis and you can’t really state that in strong enough terms. … You couldn’t really think about doing a soccer team without involving them in some way.”
The visits continued as Della Rosa’s treatment plan was put into action, with midfielder Morgan Hackworth joining Magdefrau as the trio watched the finale of The Bachelor together. As Della Rosa’s strength began to return, so did her opportunities to get back to what she loved, and that meant playing her role in the official launch of 901 FC. As the liaison for visiting teams to AutoZone Park, Della Rosa got to see first hand the arrival of professional soccer from the field on March 9, a night that she’ll never forget.
“We were so amped for the game, and we didn’t even know how many people were going to be there until we snuck our heads out and we were like, ‘oh my gosh, there are actually 8,000 people here.’ It was incredible to see,” said Della Rosa. “We knew we had the season-ticket holders, we knew we had the people in the suites, but we didn’t realize 8,000 people were going to be there.
The environment the entire game was just amazing, to be on the field, but also the prep for the game, all the players were so up for it, it was just a really good environment.”
And as the club rolled out its “My Memphis” campaign building up to its appearance on the USL Championship Game of the Week on ESPN earlier this month, there could be only one choice to be the final person that embodied the city’s spirit.
“I thought it was a wonderful choice, honestly,” said Bell. “First of all, I thought the way that was presented was superb, and I loved seeing all these Memphians with our jersey and our colors representing our club, but she’s the perfect choice to be the last in the group. Knowing the St. Jude logo is on the back of that jersey as well makes it very special.”
“She represents our club, she is a big part of what we do, she is a big part of who we want to be, so to have her be in our jersey, on our field with that promotion as the last person as well, was exactly how it should be,” added Lamprecht. “She is very involved in every aspect with our club on such an emotional level that when she is in our crest and our jersey like that, it gives us goosebumps and we know that she wears it proudly. So, to see that in that moment and be the last person in that campaign, it was tremendous for us.”
As for Della Rosa’s recovery, things are moving well. She’s enjoying being able to go to the park again with her dog, Rocco, and hanging out with friends in between her treatment schedule. She’s also looking forward to getting back on the field with her Christian Brothers teammates as determination drives her toward future goals.
“I’m always trying to do something more, but also, I think that’s what Memphis instills in a lot of people,” said Della Rosa. “If you’re given that opportunity, take it and do everything you can with it. When I was diagnosed, I wasn’t even worried about whether I was going to come back as a player, whether I was going to come back as a student. I just knew let me get over this and then I’ll get back in it. It was never, OK, maybe that’s part of my past now and I need to move on with my life, no, not at all. I know I’m going to come back to the field and to the classroom.”
As Memphis has shaped Della Rosa, she is now one of those that has become the embodiment of the city.
“To represent Memphis is to represent something bigger than yourself. I think every quality that makes me who I am today has a lot to do with my upbringing here,” said Della Rosa. “To represent Memphis is to represent your home, but also to represent something that provides so much to so many people. Especially with St. Jude, which has people come here from all over the world, it’s an honor to represent this city.”