But above all, he was given the label “fighter.”
Aniello, 13, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – bone cancer in his left femur – in 2010. After undergoing chemotherapy and several intensive surgeries, which involved giving him a prosthetic leg, his health began to improve. A routine checkup showed nodules in his lungs, but those were removed and he was back in school, ready to play baseball and prepare for eighth grade. But in April, Aniello started feeling sick again and doctors found the cancer spread throughout his body and to his mouth. He died July 27.
Frank Redente, operations director at Farnam Neighborhood House – where Aniello played basketball and attended a summer program, said he “always gave 100 percent. He never slacked off.”
With a look of determination behind the smile on his face, Aniello was driven to beat cancer, succeed in school and play hard in athletics, which Redente said he was “exceptionally good at.” Aniello played basketball, baseball and soccer.
“He was a powerful guy and he hit the ball with power. He was also a great teammate” said his uncle, Alderman Al Paolillo Jr., D-17, who was his coach for Annex Little League and is also the Board of Alderman majority leader.
Aniello, who began his baseball career around age 6, stopped playing sports when he started chemotherapy but continued to support his teammates in every sport he played. He would make pizzas with his father, Luigi Cappetta, at his restaurant, Cappetta’s Italian Imports, and deliver them to the team during weekly basketball games.
“Chemo may have taken his ability to play but he didn’t allow it to take his involvement with a place he held dear,” said his step mother, Kristyn Cappetta.
When he wasn’t helping his teammates carry trophies after a win or celebrating an undefeated title, he could be found riding quads, soap box racing, cooking or skateboarding.
In everything he did, Aniello always loved to be around people, his family said
“He loved working with the customers at his father’s restaurant,” said his step-mother. “He was always trying to push his uncle out of his position at the front register because Aniello believed he managed the business better.”
While Aniello was active in the New Haven and West Haven communities, his family said academics came first and everything else followed. Several years ago he hit a hurdle and had to repeat third grade but then everything changed.
“That’s when his academic career took off,” said Paolillo, who held up his last report card showing seven As, including three A pluses.
“He’s been fighting for years but for him it was everyday life so there was no moaning, no groaning, he knew what he had to do,” said Andrea Calandrelli, a teacher at Nathan Hale School and Aniello’s mentor and tutor.
Calandrelli recalled when Aniello, who was getting around school via crutches or a wheelchair, got his last progress report.
“He hobbled into my classroom and said ‘I really want to bring up my history grade. Is there extra credit I can do? Is there a test I can take?’ He always wanted to know what he could do better,” she said. “With mundane things everyone says ‘I can’t, I can’t. But he never said I can’t do this because I have cancer.”
Sal Punzo, administrative consultant at Nathan Hale and the president of Annex Little League said Aniello’s teachers loved him.
“He was always respectful,” said Punzo. “And when he walked into a place, he brightened up the room.”
Paolillo joked that Aniello, who weighed about 125 pounds at one point, spent more time in the lunchroom than in the classroom.
“He was a heavyweight fighter packaged inside a 90 pound body at the end,” said Paolillo
“He was always a fighter. And he was a kid who could be a role model for everyone – adult or child,” added his mother, Anissa Paolillo.
Aniello attended St. Anthony’s Church, where more than 1,000 people lined the sidewalks for his funeral service this week.
“People said ‘that’s a tribute to your family’ but I said ‘no. That’s the kid. He was everywhere.’ Look at the impact a person can have at 13,” said his grandfather, Al Paolillo Sr.
“This child in his short 13 years held many titles, values and memories,” his father and step mother added. “But to us, he was ‘Niel,’ the strongest, bravest person we have ever met.”
His family expressed gratitude toward community members, hospital staff, school officials and everyone else who supported Aniello through his fight.