In June 2014, Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Devon Still was rehabbing from offseason surgery and preparing for his third NFL season when he received the worst news of his life: His young daughter, Leah, had been diagnosed with a rare form of stage 4 cancer.
"When my daughter was diagnosed, it completely turned my life upside down," Still said on
Glenn Clark Radio
March 26. "I had no idea what was going on. I didn't know how I was going to be able to make it through something like this."
Still, who had played 18 games during his first two years in Cincinnati, put his football career on hold while Leah underwent treatment. However, despite his absence from the team, head coach Marvin Lewis offered Still a chance to remain on the practice squad to help him pay for his daughter's treatment.
Leah underwent multiple surgeries in 2014 and 2015 to remove cancerous tumors, and she's been in remission since. Still has written a book, "Still In The Game," about his life and trying to deal with his daughter's illness. At the onset of Leah's diagnosis, however, Still was forced to consider his priorities.
"The interesting thing about that is, during the whole time Leah was battling cancer those two years -- I realized that was going to take a lot away from my football career," Still said. "But I understood my values as a man going into the NFL, and I felt that my faith and my family came before football. One of the main reasons why I wanted to make it to the NFL was to provide my daughter with a better lifestyle than I had when I was growing up. So if I had a chance of losing my daughter, there wouldn't be a point of having football anymore."
Still learned those values through the adversity he faced along his journey to the NFL. Still grew up in Wilmington, Del., where drugs, crime and poverty were a regular part of his young life.
"It's a crazy place to grow up in," he said. "I thought that was normal when I was growing up. I thought that's what everybody was going through."
In addition to growing up in a rough area, Still's parents divorced when he was in third grade. However, despite their separation, they made sure to attend his games and support him throughout his high school and college career.
"I know every game that I had … I can look up in the stands and see my parents sitting right next to each other, cheering me on, Still said. "That's what gave me the motivation to go out there and play every single day and eventually make it to the NFL."
His next stop on the way to the NFL was Penn State University, where he was named team captain and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2011. However, even his time at Penn State came with more than its share of hardships. He tore his ACL as a freshman and broke his leg the following year. Even when he broke out as a senior, the team dealt with the Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked the nation.
Still was drafted 53rd overall by the Bengals in 2012. His first two professional seasons were far from smooth sailing as he missed time to various injuries. However, upon hearing the news of his daughter's diagnosis in 2014, Still knew he had enough experience facing adversity to help his family through his daughter's treatment.
"I believe all of that prepared me for that moment," Still acknowledged. "So many people reached out to me and asked me how I was able to make it through that, but I wanted to really show how life and God prepared me for that moment, because a lot of the time when people are going through struggles, they always look on the outside for help.
"I feel like the things we go through in our life help us build the strength inside in order to overcome whatever obstacles we're facing. We just have to realize it."
Still was activated from the team's practice squad early in the 2014 season, and he played a career-high 12 games for Cincinnati that season. However, he would only play three more games in the league with Houston in 2016 before retiring in 2017. Still knows that, while unforeseen circumstances likely stunted his own professional career, there is no time for regret.
"It is frustrating, especially when you overcome all those obstacles and you make it to the NFL, then you're dealing with injuries and your daughter is diagnosed with cancer -- you never get to enjoy the NFL," he said. "But I think that's a part of life. Sometimes life just throws you different curveballs and obstacles, and you can't sit there and dwell on what didn't happen for you because you will lose focus on what can happen for you in the future."
The sports world picked up on the perseverance shown by Still and his daughter. The Bengals began selling Stills' jersey to help raise awareness for the local children's hospital. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton personally bought 100 of the jerseys and distributed them to the city's Boys and Girls Club and children's hospital. At the 2015 ESPY Awards, Still accepted the Jimmy V Award on behalf of his daughter.
Still hopes that Leah can walk away from her arduous fight with cancer with the same values he picked up as a young man. He hopes she learns to take nothing for granted and to have the mindset to overcome whatever obstacles are put in front of her. Leah underwent surgeries between 2014 and 2015 to remove cancerous tumors, and March 25 marked the four-year anniversary of her cancer being in remission.
"We're fighting to get to that five-year mark next year when she would be declared cancer-free," Still said. "We're going to have a really big party to celebrate."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of W Publishing/Thomas Nelson
To hear more from Still, listen to the full interview here: