As the United States was beginning to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Devon Still was transforming his Houston home kitchen into an upscale steakhouse.
The 31-year-old former NFL defensive lineman wasn’t concerned about how the coronavirus would affect his business. All the patrons he needed—four, himself included—were living there already; love was the only currency accepted. To say the Still family was looking forward to their steakhouse celebration, on March 25, would be an understatement. Five years earlier, Still received the greatest news of his life: His daughter Leah’s cancer was in remission.
“When your daughter wants to go to the steakhouse to celebrate but we’re locked down in quarantine, you just gotta whip out that chef hat,” Still said in an Instagram video he posted that night. “This is better than any steakhouse you could’ve went to.”
In June 2014, Leah was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma and given a 50–50 chance to survive. Still announced that Leah’s cancer was in remission on March 25, 2015, and that December, tests revealed no evidence of cancer.
“Once you get around the three-year mark [of being in remission], the chances of it coming back drop significantly,” says Still, who retired in 2017. “But, once you hit that five-year mark, that’s where the doctors can actually declare you cancer free, when they believe the chances of it coming back are slim-to-none.”
The grand opening of Chef Still’s Steakhouse was one of the many ways the Still family has adjusted to this most unusual year. Because of 10-year-old Leah’s underlying health conditions that put her at high risk of contracting COVID-19, she cannot go to school and has been attending classes remotely.
The Stills—Devon, Leah, his wife Asha (Leah’s stepmother) and their 14-month-old daughter Aria—have been hunkered down at home since March. Like families across the country, they’ve fallen into a routine to make the most of a difficult situation. After beginning each morning with a workout, Still gets Leah out of bed and ready for virtual school. While she’s in class, Still goes to work—remotely. Besides being a full-time father, Still’s post-playing jobs include brand ambassador for the NFL Players Association; performance coach; motivational speaker; and CEO of the Still Strong Foundation, which he founded in 2015 to give grants to families affected by childhood cancer.
He and Asha also host a podcast called REALationships, where they talk about their marriage and offer relationship advice. Episodes vary from playfully suggestive (“Worth A Ring Or Just A Fling?”—synopsis: “discussing how to determine whether the person you’re dating is worth building a future with, or just a booty call!”—to much heavier topics such as divorce and infidelity. On “We Weren’t Expecting This,” they talk candidly about Asha having a miscarriage this fall.
Asha always wanted to have children who were close in age, and after having Arya last year, the Stills were trying to have another baby. They found out Asha was pregnant in late September and immediately started planning for all the excitement ahead of them. Nobody wants to think of the worst possible outcome.
Because of the coronavirus, Still could not go with Asha to the doctor’s office for the first ultrasound, so he was FaceTiming with her during the appointment. That’s when the doctor told them the ultrasound showed she had an anembryonic pregnancy, which occurs when the gestational sac develops without an embryo. There were two possibilities: it was either a miscarriage, or too soon in the pregnancy to detect the embryo. Asha’s mind shut down as she immediately jumped to the former, while Devon, the optimist, believed Asha had simply gone for the ultrasound too early. The doctor told Asha to come back the next week to get radiology tests.
“Something felt wrong,” Asha recalled on the podcast. “I don’t know if it was me leaning on what I was told, but something in my soul, in my spirit said something was not right.”
Those additional tests revealed the same thing, so the doctor told Asha her options. She could miscarry, either naturally or with the help of medication, or she could have surgery. Asha was initially opposed to having the surgery but eventually decided it was better to have the procedure instead of experiencing all of the symptoms of a pregnancy knowing there would be no baby.
They got in touch with their parents to tell them what was going on, which was all the more devastating because they didn’t know Asha was pregnant. She and Devon were waiting to tell them over the holidays.
“We’re not around family,” Asha said on the podcast, fighting back tears. “Having to tell them something like this over the phone or FaceTime and not have their support and to be there for us [in person] was definitely hard. It’s just us down here.”
She went in for the surgery, and once again, Devon couldn’t be there. They prayed. A lot. He said not being there with her during the procedure “resurfaced a lot of the pain I went through with Leah when I was away from her.” Of course, they understood why he couldn’t be there. There were hospital beds full of sick and dying COVID-19 patients on ventilators whose family members couldn’t spend those last moments with them.
The surgery was successful. Afterward the Stills decided to share their experiences to help other families that have to go through a miscarriage.
When Leah gets done with school for the day, she and Still exercise together. Like her dad, Leah is an athlete. She plays soccer, though not this year because of the coronavirus, and plans on running track when it’s safe for her to do so.
The Still Strong Foundation canceled all of its in-person events, such as the annual gala and its golf tournament, which takes place each year at Penn State, Still’s alma mater. The gala festivities for Leah’s fifth anniversary have been put on hold. The foundation is still hosting virtual fundraisers, recently teaming up with former NFL coach Dick Vermeil for a wine tasting event.
“We preach all the time how families of people who are diagnosed with childhood cancer lose about 40% of their household income due to cancer treatment and other work-related disruptions,” Still says. “Now, imagine that on top of going through a pandemic. Some of these parents are not bringing in any money because they’ve been laid off from their job.”
When Leah was going through treatment, the Still family was relatively fortunate. He was cut from the Bengals’ 53-man active roster heading into the 2014 season, but they re-signed him to the practice squad so he could continue receiving insurance and getting paid to take care of Leah.
“I can’t give football 100% right now,” Still told reporters at the time. “In the business aspect they want guys solely focused on football. And that’s understandable.”
The following week, Still was added to the active roster when a spot opened up. “Devon has told us he feels ready to contribute now, so it's the right move at the right time,” Marvin Lewis, then the Bengals’ head coach, said of the move. “And we've told Devon he can still be afforded the personal time he needs to attend to his daughter's care."
Still returned to the field again once Leah was in remission, but retired from football for good in December 2017 after a six-year career with 43 tackles and 0.5 sacks—and a slew of injuries, something he was all too familiar with. After he tore both his ACL and MCL as a freshman at Penn State and broke his left ankle in August 2008, Still considered giving up on football.
“Coming back after two years of not playing football, getting back on the football field was a struggle, just learning how to play football again,” Still says.
Still worked his way back and played every game in the 2009 season. Then, Leah was born at the end of his junior year, on May 6, 2010. He credits his strong performance in the 2011 Outback Bowl for giving him the confidence he’d need for the following year, his last at Penn State. He earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and All-America honors in 2011. A team captain, he was instrumental in leading the Nittany Lions players in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, news of which broke that fall.
Time and experience have created distance between Still and Penn State. He knows members of the football program, but he’s not one of the alumni who maintains close ties with them. He laughed when asked about the team’s baffling 2020 campaign. The Nittany Lions are the first team ever to be ranked at the beginning of the season and lose its first five games.
“Starting out 0–5 is something I would never expect to see from a Penn State football team,” he said. “I’m not really understanding what’s going on over there, whether it’s coaching or players just going through adversity because of everything going on [with the pandemic], but hopefully the win that we just had against Michigan will help turn the season around.
“They just need to finish out strong so they can carry that momentum into the offseason, which would then carry over into next year. But I’ve chalked up this year already.”
Still is a believer of the intangible magic of momentum. And why shouldn’t he be? Look past the big-play turning points, winning streaks and all the other sports-specific things that athletes, coaches and writers alike attribute to the Almighty Momentum. Still’s life has been defined by overcoming a series of adverse and tragic events. Through resiliency, supportive peers, generous strangers, boundless love and at least a little bit of luck, the strongest person Still has ever known rallied to beat cancer.
“No matter how small or big you are, you can still fight cancer,” Leah told ABC13 Houston in 2018. “Any child could do exactly what I did and they could just have courage and stay strong.”
The pandemic has brought the Still family a new challenge. Most of their extended family is from Delaware. Leah’s mom, Channing Smythe, also lives on the East Coast. Still said the holiday season has been the most difficult time for them so far because of the travel restrictions. While they can’t go home to Delaware, the Stills plan to bring the holidays to Houston, much like they did with Chef Still’s Steakhouse exactly nine months earlier.
“For Leah’s birthday, we turned the backyard into a waterpark and celebrated that way,” Still says. “When we have big milestones like, say, a wedding anniversary or Leah’s cancer-free anniversary, we like to cook. Our family likes to eat.
“Right now, that’s what the whole world is going through. We’re just trying to find a way to make it through.”