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‘Football is Full of Heart’

One minute, Devon Still was preparing for his 4-year-old daughter’s dance recital. The next, the Bengals defensive tackle was at a hospital, learning that she had cancer. Here is their heart-wrenching story and how others are rallying to help

The Leah Still story has come close to capturing the nation. At least the sporting nation, at a time when football desperately needs some small bit of good news. Leah, 4, is three-and-a-half months into her fight with pediatric cancer—neuroblastoma, to be specific. She has a Sept. 25 surgery scheduled to remove a tumor that has been shrunk from softball-size in June to something smaller through four rounds of chemotherapy. Doctors have told her father, Cincinnati defensive tackle Devon Still, that Leah has about a 50 percent chance of survival.

“I’ll remember that day, June second, the day she was diagnosed," Still recalled the other day. “I was in Delaware for a dance recital that she was having that day.” They never made it to the recital. “She had a fever, and so we took her to the emergency room. They thought it was some kind of infection, and they did some tests. They would touch her hip, and she would jump—there was a lot of pain there. So they did an ultrasound test and saw a mass. One of the doctors said there was about 10 things it could be, and they went over the list of things and the last thing was ‘cancer.’ I never took it very seriously, because it was the last thing they said.

“That night they did an MRI and a CAT scan on her. They told me to wait, and they would come out and talk to me. I’ve had those scans before, and I know how long they take, maybe 45 minutes. So they were in there about two hours, and I figured, ‘This isn’t good.’ I kind of got ready for some news.

“The doctor came out. And her lips started quivering. All I heard was they found a tumor.

Devon Still has been a constant at the hospital in Delaware where his daughter Leah is fighting for her life. (Instagram/@Man_Of_Still75)

Devon Still has been documenting on Instagram his daughter Leah's cancer battle. (Instagram/@Man_Of_Still75)

“I felt empty. I felt sick. Shocked. I had to go out and tell my father and grandmother, and they were out there waiting for me, and when I went there, they were laughing, and I thought, ‘I am going to knock the smiles right off their faces.’

“And I started to tell them, and I just broke down crying."

A few days after the Stage Four neuroblastoma diagnosis that changed his family's life forever, Still lay next to Leah in a bed in the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Delaware. A nurse was sticking the 4-year-old—who hates needles—for some more tests, and she was crying, and the big football player was trying to comfort her. “Dad!" she yelled through her tears. “This is all your fault! You never brought me to the hospital in time!"

“I broke down then," Still said the other day, sounding emotional about it again. “That is a tough thing to hear from your daughter."

So now he waits. And he takes strength from a whole lot of people he has never met.

* * *

What does a man with a dream of being a great football player think when one moment he's getting ready to attend a dance recital and the next he's told his daughter has a 50-50 chance of living?

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He thinks he can defer football for a while, and maybe forever. That’s what Devon Still wanted to do. Leah's mother, Channing Smythe, lives with her in Delaware, and Still is there often, in between playing and training for the Bengals. But when she was diagnosed, “Football stopped crossing my mind. When I heard she had a 50 percent chance of survival, and then I heard the cancer went into her bones, I just wanted to spend all my time with her—in case her time ran out. You know, that is not time you could ever get back."

He called the Bengals and explained he’d have to take some time off to be with his daughter, and 10 minutes later coach Marvin Lewis was on the phone with him, telling him not to worry about rushing back. He should take all the time he needed.

Football stopped crossing my mind," Still said. "When I heard she had a 50 percent chance of survival, I just wanted to spend all my time with her. That is not time you could ever get back.

Still thought he wouldn’t play football—he’d just walk away, and spend as long as he had to with Leah while she fought the cancer. But then some cold reality hit: He was told her treatment, depending on the extent of the cancer, would cost at least $1 million. So he came back to camp, and Lewis told him he could go home whenever he needed. At the end of training camp the Bengals waived Still—they knew he couldn’t devote the time necessary to be a full-time contributor—but offered him a spot on the practice squad. This way he could keep his insurance and pay for Leah’s treatment. Still was grateful … grateful for the insurance, grateful that the Bengals wanted to stick with him, and grateful that they would allow him to commute back and forth to support his daughter.

While that was happening, two sources of goodness sprang up. The Bengals announced that proceeds from sales of Still’s number 75 jersey, available on the team’s website for $100 apiece, would be given to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to support pediatric cancer research. Sean Payton bought 100 of them—$10,000 to fight cancer. “If I saw him," said Still, “I’d give him a hug." As of the weekend, about 5,000 jerseys had been sold. Another site, PLDGIT, began to accept donations or pledges per Bengals sack this year, with the money going to fight cancer and to provide financial assistance to families who have to drop everything when their children are diagnosed. As of Monday night, people had pledged $408.38 per team sack.

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With Still healthy and the Bengals in need of a rotational tackle after Week 1, Lewis told him he wanted to activate him for the Week 2 game against Atlanta. Still felt he was ready. Lewis told him that regardless of his active status he could go home to Delaware when he wanted to be with Leah.

Still, who had two solo tackles and one assist in 16 snaps against the Falcons on Sunday, continues to come to terms with news that still makes him shudder.

“At times," he said, “I’ve felt like I couldn’t go on. This has hit me harder than any obstacle I’ve faced in my life. It makes no sense to me. I never heard of neuroblastoma before, and now I am an expert on it. But the Bengals have been so good to me. People I don’t know have been so good to me. Fans have been so good.

“The whole experience … I have been just stunned. It has helped so much. I can’t believe that in this sport that has no so-called heart, it’s really so full of heart. That’s the truth: Football is full of heart.”