It’s the AFC Championship at Arrowhead Stadium. Over 75,000 fans fill the narrow bleachers, creating a sea of red all around. It’s the end of the fourth quarter and the clock begins to wind down. Fans grow tense, not wanting to jinx anything; it seems too good to be true. The large, oval scoreboard atop the endzone shows the final score of the game. The Kansas City Chiefs beat the Tennessee Titans 35-24, and the Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl.
Media rushes the field like a camera-filled infestation as Kansas City’s 50-year dream becomes reality. The announcer’s voice booms through the stadium’s loudspeakers. Individual screams get lost in a sea of thunderous cheers. Red and yellow confetti rains down onto the field, completely covering the green grass. In a moment of pure joy, Missouri Western student Aly Viselli lays down and does snow angels in the sea of confetti at Arrowhead Stadium.
The 2019 football season was Viselli’s third year of being an official Chiefs Cheerleader. Every home game, she gets to stand on the sidelines at Arrowhead and perform dances, keep fans engaged and cheer on the red and gold. But this year was different and not just because she got to cheer in Miami at the Super Bowl.
Years and years ago, Viselli had babysat a girl named Whitney Wells. Viselli is 11 years older than Wells, and both girls are native to St. Joseph, Missouri. Their families are friends, and Viselli was able to be both a friend and a mentor to Wells as she grew up.
In May of 2019, Wells was diagnosed with DIPG.
DIPG, or diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, is a very aggressive type of childhood cancer that begins as a tumor in the brain. In the summer of 2019, Viselli traveled with Wells’ family to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
St. Jude is known for their positive attitude and free treatments for sick children. But despite the many activities, events and colors occupying the hospital, Viselli said it’s still a depressing environment. As soon as she arrived at the hospital, Viselli broke down in tears. She had never been in an environment like that before and could feel the pain that every family at St. Jude was going through.
“They try to do activities and events, but some of them like Whitney just couldn’t do that stuff,” Viselli said. “She was exhausted from being there all day and just worn out from being poked all the time.”
“Pokes” are what Wells referred to when she was given any sort of needles or shots as treatment.
“She said, ‘I hate being poked, I don’t like the pokes,’” Viselli said. “Whitney is such a smart girl. She knew everything that was going on. Even when they tried to kid-talk to her she was like, ‘No really, tell me what’s going on.’”
As Wells continued to fight DIPG, Viselli spent as much time with her as possible while also preparing for the upcoming NFL season. She reported to Kansas City multiple times a week during the summer for cheer practices. Once football season began in the fall, Viselli cheered on the Chiefs at every home game by performing a number of dance routines on the sidelines. All season she cheered for Defeat DIPG.
“I basically cheered the whole season for her,” Viselli said. “I saw everything her parents went through and I’ve never been so close to a situation like that before. So, it kind of put things into perspective for me.”
Viselli’s Young Life leader, Karen Hinde, has known Viselli since Viselli was in high school. She knows that Viselli both enjoys her cheerleading job while taking it very seriously, and cheering for Whitney and Defeat DIPG wasn’t just another work responsibility.
“That isn’t just her doing her job,” Hinde said. “She really gets caught up in really caring about the people and really lets herself be emotionally involved. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, I’m doing this because I have to do my job’ or whatever. I think she loves that part of it as much as anything.”
Along with being a friend of Viselli’s, Wells was also a Chiefs fan. The previous year, Wells had gotten to cheer during a home game as part of the Junior Chiefs Cheerleader event. This year, however, Wells’ health was declining fast and she was too busy with treatments to attend the event. Her mom reached out to Viselli to see if there was anything she could do that would allow Wells to do something special at Arrowhead.
Viselli contacted her boss who contacted the higher-ups, and it was agreed that Wells deserved a special visit to the stadium. During the iconic snow game of the season on Dec. 15, the Wells family was given free tickets to the indoor club level and received visits by KC Wolf and Chiefs Cheer Ambassadors while a blanket of snow fell onto the field outside. The whole Chiefs Cheer team and some Chiefs players, including Patrick Mahomes, wore bracelets during that game that read “Whitney Wells, We Got This.”
Later that month, on Dec. 29, 2019, the Kansas City Chiefs were playing the Los Angeles Chargers at home. It was the final game of the regular season. Kansas City was ranked third in the AFC with a chance to move up to second if the New England Patriots lost to the Miami Dolphins.
Chiefs fans had been scoreboard-watching in Arrowhead, and before the Chiefs game ended, fans stood up and cheers echoed throughout the stadium. The Dolphins had upset the Patriots, and the Chiefs had beat the Chargers, which meant that the Chiefs were now ranked second in the conference and would receive a bye. It was an exciting day for Chiefs Kingdom.
Also on Dec. 29, 2019, however, Wells lost her battle against DIPG. She was ten years old.
“I wasn’t back in town yet,” Viselli said. “I just remember vividly my mom saying she’s going to take us all the way to win the Super Bowl.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Viselli and the Chiefs went on to win game after game in the postseason, until eventually the confetti-filled AFC Championship led them to Miami for Super Bowl LIV.
“After she passed, I knew that every game after that, Whitney was, like, flying around Arrowhead, is what they say,” Viselli said. “Even when we won (the AFC Championship), they cropped a picture of her in Arrowhead with wings in, like, heaven, and it was pretty cool.”
Viselli has always had a strong sense of faith and a strong love for people, and those things tend to intertwine.
“I’m a people person because growing up in my church, I volunteered all the time in the community,” Viselli said. “I think between volunteering and my mom being a teacher, I’ve been around kids, and that’s kind of been my passion is helping people throughout my life.”
Her love for Wells is evident when she speaks of her. It’s not quite sadness, but just joy in their memories together as a big smile stays on Viselli’s face. Cydney Ezzel became friends with Viselli during their freshman year at Missouri Western and says that she has always been passionate about others.
“Her love for her friend Whitney Wells, like, that’s very evident that she loves people and loves people when they’re in a hard place in life,” Ezzell said. “Even just like me and her, when we’re talking, she’s always asking me about my life and wanting to know about me.”
Her constant love and faith carried over onto the sidelines, as it helped her not only get through the tough loss of a friend, but also through the up and down 2019 Chiefs football season. Viselli described her teammates on the Chiefs Cheer team as almost sisters who are all very faith-based and know that in football games and life, God has a plan.
That plan came full-circle the week before the Super Bowl when Viselli and three fellow cheerleaders were visiting a children’s hospital in Miami as part of an appearance. The Chiefs Cheerleaders had partnered with an organization called Basket of Hope, and were set to attend a local hospital to visit sick children and give them baskets filled with goodies that the cheerleaders had put together. Hinde said that these are the moments that Viselli enjoys most about her job.
“Since she’s been a Chiefs Cheerleader and I’ve continued a friendship with her, whenever I ask her about her favorite experiences or things she really loves doing with Chiefs Cheer, oftentimes she talks more about doing the appearances where they meet kids that are big fans or maybe kids that have been sick that want to come to a game or they visit a hospital,” Hinde said.
One child in particular that was receiving a basket was a young girl named Emma. Emma had a brain tumor just like Wells had. But ten minutes before the cheerleaders arrived at the hospital, Emma passed away. It had been exactly one month since Wells’ passing.
The cheerleaders still visited with lots of children in the hospital and took pictures, signed autographs and spoke with families. Viselli enjoyed being able to talk to those family members because she was able to really relate to them and let them understand that she was more than just a cheerleader. She cared.
“All these memories kind of flooded back, but that was my favorite part just because I could give back to kids that I knew what they were going through, I knew what their parents were going through,” Viselli said. “That was a moment that I really loved.”
When the Super Bowl finally arrived, Viselli and her teammates walked into Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday morning around 10:30 a.m. As fans began appearing, she realized just how much of the Chiefs Kingdom had made the trip as the teal and orange of the stadium turned bright red.
As the game went on, Viselli and her teammates would rotate between two corners of the field performing short routines and cheering in front of over 62,000 fans. Despite the big stage, Viselli said she was hardly nervous.
“It was kind of like another day,” Viselli said. “It’s almost like one of those things where you’re nervous before it happens, but then whenever you get on the field you know what to do. You’re just in your element."
Viselli was never nervous cheering, nor was she afraid of losing. As the game got down to the wire, no one was counting out Kansas City. She and her teammates stood firm in their faith, knowing that God had a plan for the outcome.
They had spoken a team prayer before the big game and knew that whatever was meant to happen would happen.
Then, the Chiefs executed their wasp play from Mahomes to Tyreek Hill, and Viselli felt the stadium light up. The clock hit zero and the Chiefs won by 11. Confetti filled the air once again.
“It was crazy,” Viselli said. “Our team couldn’t stop screaming, couldn’t stop crying, laughing, like so many emotions were going around. We didn’t know what to think or feel. It was just incredible.”
Even in that moment, Viselli was selfless. She was thankful that the Chiefs executives were finally able to be back on top. She was thankful that her cheer coach and veteran cheerleaders could experience a Super Bowl win. And she was thankful that the Chiefs players could see their hard work pay off.
But friends and family of Viselli knew what a big moment this was for her and were fascinated to see her on the big screen. According to Ezzell, seeing Viselli on the field was unbelievable.
“It just seems like the Super Bowl and things like that are just in a whole other world,” Ezzell said. “It doesn’t seem like it would ever be real to someone from St. Joe, especially, and it’s cool because it’s kind of like an underdog-type of thing. You really can do anything you set your mind to, and watching her do that is just really awesome.”
After the Lombardi Trophy was passed around and the confetti had fallen, Viselli attended the Chiefs organization after-party full of celebrities and champagne spraying. She didn’t get back to her hotel until 4:15 a.m. on Monday morning. She flew back to Kansas City later that day.
Along with actually cheering in the Super Bowl, Viselli appeared on big stages such as Good Morning America, The Today Show and FOX News. She later rode in the Chiefs Victory Parade through downtown Kansas City.
But despite the confetti, trophies, parties and parades, Viselli is still most thankful for the opportunity to support Wells and use her platform as a Chiefs Cheerleader to help families in Miami.
“I’m still upset about it, but I do know that Whitney is still with us and I have peace that she’s okay where she’s at,” Viselli said. “But my favorite part was that I could help someone else with something I just went through.”
Now when Viselli cheers in Arrowhead, she can be comforted by the presence of her friend flying angelically above Kansas City.