CINCINNATI (AP) — Devon Still describes his daughter as “your typical, soon-to-be 8-year-old.” Nothing’s typical about Leah Still , who faced long odds against reaching that eighth birthday. Or about her father, a former NFL defensive lineman who retired after last season and has immersed himself in a second career — helping other families deal with childhood cancer.
“We call it recycling our pain,” Still said.
Still retired last December after another foot injury sidetracked his career, deciding that at 28 years old, it was time to move on to something else. It was a difficult moment — he’d played football since age 13 and spent three years with the Cincinnati Bengals and one with the Houston Texans.
“The most successful people know when it’s time to call audibles,” he said.
Even when that means giving up a promising career that began when he was a second-round pick out of Penn State.
“Since I got to the NFL in 2012, I feel it’s been a roller coaster,” Still said in a phone interview from Houston, where he now lives. “I tell people all the time that my life has been like climbing a mountain. When I got to the top of the mountain, the view wasn’t what I thought. Making it in the NFL wasn’t what I thought. I had so many injuries.”
The biggest surprise came in June 2014, when Leah — then 4 — was diagnosed with stage four of a rare cancer that affects primarily infants and young children. She was given a 50/50 chance to survive.
Still shared her story through videos and interviews. Sports fans as well as people who couldn’t name an NFL team became engrossed in her struggle. Surgeons removed a tumor from her abdomen. She got chemotherapy, radiation and experimental treatments. There were setbacks and very dark days when the treatments seemed to be inadequate.
More than three years later, the cancer is in remission and Leah is “just trying to be a kid again,” as her father describes it. In addition to attending school, she’s tried gymnastics and cheerleading. She’s signed up for acting classes.
And Still is trying to recycle those difficult years into helping other parents going through the same experience.
He formed the Still Strong Foundation in 2015, helping families dealing with childhood cancer to cover non-medical bills so they can devote more time and resources to fighting the disease. He works with other foundations such as the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation trying to find new treatments.
He’s also gone back to school as part of his second career.
Still got a degree in criminal law at Penn State with the idea of helping juvenile delinquents when his football career ended. He’s working on a master’s degree in leadership at the University of Houston that will help him navigate corporate culture as he advocates for families.
At times when he’s sharing his story with families, those memories of Leah’s ordeal return fresh. He’s gotten to know children who don’t survive the disease.
“That’s tougher,” he said. “I feel sometimes we suffer from survivors’ remorse.”
Leah has a photogenic smile that brightens the room — people saw it in Still’s tweets during her treatments — and reminds Still of his priorities.
“Honestly, to this day I just sit there and stare at Leah,” he said. “I meet so many kids that pass away from this. I may have lost something I wanted so bad — being in the NFL — but I still have my daughter and that’s so much more important.”
During his daughter’s ordeal in 2014, Still got home from a Bengals’ practice and saw a local television story about Lauren Hill, the Mount St. Joseph freshman who played basketball with an inoperable brain tumor. He decided to visit Lauren and brought her a Bengals jersey as a gift.
“They sat and talked forever,” said Lauren’s mom, Lisa. “It was almost like a bond, like they’d known each other longer than just meeting. I distinctively remember her saying she felt like she knew him forever. Their conversation just flowed.”
After Hill scored two baskets in her first game, she visited Still at Paul Brown Stadium and gave him one of her game jerseys . Soon after, Leah met Lauren at a Bengals game. The families formed a bond as they crossed paths at various events.
“Lauren’s story came out and, in kind of a weird way, you feel alone because you’re being barraged with a lot of media coverage,” said Lisa Hill, who works with The Cure Starts Now Foundation . “As a parent, it’s nice to have that camaraderie and know you’re not alone.”
It was the same for Still, who was taken aback when Lauren gave him the game jersey.
“I knew they understood what I was going through,” Still said. “Talking to Lauren and her parents put life in perspective.”
A perspective that’s carrying him into his second career.
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