For a few months in 2014, only 10 NFL players sold more jerseys than Devon Still, but not because of what he did on the field. That June, Still announced that his four-year-old daughter, Leah, had been diagnosed with an extremely advanced form of cancer called neuroblastoma.
The Bengals sold nearly 15,000 of Devon's No. 75 jerseys in the span of two months, and donated the proceeds, more than $1.25 million, to pediatric cancer research. Devon documented Leah's battle on social media, and the young girl became a sort of celebrity and a source of inspiration. Devon and Leah were jointly awarded the Jimmy V Award at the ESPYs in 2015.
Three years ago, Leah's cancer went into remission. The years since have brought change: Still bounced around from the Bengals to the Texans and Jets before retiring last December. He got married in 2016. Leah, now seven years old, is enjoying a sense of normality.
"I tell everyone she’s seven going on 21, she’s growing up fast," Devon Still says. "She’s being able to get back to being a normal kid. She spent so much time in the hospital, she wasn’t able to do things that everyday kids should be able to do."
Leah is healthy, but her father's fight against cancer is far from finished. His foundation, the Still Strong Foundation, helps families with children fighting cancer. He also works to support other organizations: Last Sunday, he and his wife, Asha, participated in the 10th annual Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation 5K at Yankee Stadium. The event, which drew participants from across the country, raised more than $400,000.
“I’m only able to do so much with my foundation and with my resources and platform that I have," Still says. "The more and more that these cancer foundations can partner together to get the word out, I feel like we will be more successful in actually overcoming this disease.”
Still saw that he and Leah inspired others with their stories of perseverance, so he's developing a podcast called Undefeated, which will share stories of people who have overcome seemingly impossible obstacles in their lives. He says his stirring ESPYs speech launched his current career as a motivational speaker, where the former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year provides individuals and organizations with the playbook they need to succeed.
“As an athlete, I’m always trying to find ways to win the game,” Still says. “To me, a perfect way to beat the game of life is recycling the pain that I went through and teaching other people the mindset that they need to have in order to overcome whatever obstacles they’re facing. This is something that’s very important to me because I want my impact to be bigger than the football field. I always thought that football was going to be my gateway to people and to my success, but I really think helping people be the best that they can be in life is going to be my biggest impact.”
Still has dealt with his own fair share of obstacles—season-ending injuries at Penn State, surgeries in the NFL, blood clots in his lungs. But being in the hospital with Leah, recuperating from his surgeries and subsequent complications right next to her, gave him some perspective.
“I don’t really think the pain can compare to what people who are actually battling this disease are going through,” he says. “So if they can fight through their pain I can be able to fight through the pain that I accrued over my football career.”
Still hopes to continue to inspire others, as he and his daughter did fewer than four years ago, but with his playing days behind him, he's primarily focused on finding a cure.
“The only true harm is sitting back and letting this disease continue to take people’s lives,” Still said. “We’re going to continue to fight whether there’s a cure or not. We’re going to make sure we find out.”