Five years cancer-free, Leah Still is still inspiring

The National Football League is the most unapologetically ferocious of all sports leagues, a place where ruthlessness equals necessity and no quarter is asked or given.

That veneer rarely cracks, but almost six years ago, it briefly did. On Nov. 6, 2014, the NFL community had its collective heart melted by a beautifully innocent four-year-old girl, whose life was under threat from a rare and aggressive form of pediatric cancer.

That night, Leah Still stepped onto the field at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, between the first and second quarters, as the Bengals clashed with the Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football. She was clad in a bright pink jacket and a matching mask. The jacket covered a Bengals jersey bearing her daddy’s name, its hood covered her bald head — the result of chemotherapy.

Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer walked over to Leah’s father, Cincinnati defensive tackle Devon Still, and gave him a long hug. Around the stands, chants of Leah’s name went up. Players stopped to look at the giant screen. Everyone saw the moment for what it was: a heartwarming story, with a serious possibility of a tragic ending.

Still, understandably distracted by Leah’s ongoing treatment, had not initially made the Bengals’ 53-man roster, but the team signed him to the practice squad so that he could retain the health benefits required to continue his daughter’s medical fight. He eventually regained his spot on the main roster; this was the first time Leah had been able to see him play since.

As Leah’s story became widely known, the Bengals announced that they would donate all proceeds from sales of Still’s No. 75 jersey to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to help fight pediatric cancer. The New Orleans Saints bought 100 of them. Donations flooded in from around the league. Even New England Patriots cheerleaders wore Still’s Bengals top to raise awareness.

“It showed the NFL does have a heart,” Devon Still told me last week, in a telephone conversation. “NFL players are seen as warriors and this brought them down off that pedestal. Cancer doesn’t discriminate.”

Leah Still had her 10th birthday a few days ago, a joyous occasion in which her dad turned the backyard of the family’s Houston home into a water park. Turning 10 is a big deal, but in March, there was an even more significant anniversary — the date Leah celebrated five years cancer free.

She’s been told about the time she went to watch Devon play and stepped on the field, but doesn’t really remember it, and has no idea what all the fuss is about. She’s thankful that her treatment is over, but is quite rightly far more concerned with important stuff like riding her bike, playing Roblox and going on TikTok right now.

Her personality, as I found during a telephone chat last week, is like sunshine. As for the future, well, she has some big plans.

“First, I want to become president of the United States,” Leah told me, after her father passed over the phone. “Then I want to be a doctor.”

Why in that order?

“I want to be the first woman president but also the youngest president,” she added. “That way I can help people for longer.”

A pretty solid plan, we can all agree.

View this post on Instagram

That smile you make when you know you did it! Against all odds you beat cancer! There’s so much I could say but I’m going to try to keep it short. When Leah was first diagnosed, I was so scared. I was scared because I thought I was going to lose my daughter. I was scared because I thought I was going to miss out on all the important moments every parent should share with their kids as they grow up. I was scared because our world was shaken up and I felt so lost and hopeless. I was scared because I felt like I was losing myself while fighting to not lose Leah. The point is, even when you’re scared, you just have to trust God and push forward! Leah you are the strongest person I know. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving this battle everything you had. I know it wasn’t easy…I know it wasn’t fair…but you handled this battle like a #playmaker and inspired millions (especially me) while doing it. This is just the beginning I love you with every bone in my body ❤️ #CANCERFREE

A post shared by Devon Still (@stillinthegame) on

Still didn’t think Leah would play sports, especially after her body took years to fully contend with the ravages of so much chemo.

“She was all about tea parties and Barbies,” he said. “But last season she played soccer, so I got to go to games every week and saw her first goal. All those father-daughter moments are new memories for us, and they are special.”

I will never forget it, the date that Leah Still charmed the NFL, for it was on what should have been my daughter Sophia’s first birthday. Not every little girl who gets ill gets to make it, and our Sophia didn’t.

She was born three months prematurely and survived for only 33 hours in a hospital overlooking a beautiful ocean she would never get to see. The stunning unfairness of childhood suffering is the most devastating type of pain to contemplate, all those missed opportunities and soccer goals and playdates and birthdays and everything your mind’s eye dreamed of when you imagined being a father.

In the time that follows, small things can suddenly knife your soul, be it a pretty flower, or a teddy bear in a shop window. It takes a lot to lift you back up. Seeing Leah on that field, and wishing with all our might that she would make it through her struggle, gave myself and my wife Carol some temporary uplift.

Devon Still retired from the NFL in 2017 and has since been on a mission to use his family’s experiences to positive effect. He founded Playmaker University, an online leadership portal aimed at teaching the importance of resiliency, and is in high demand as a motivational speaker.

He learned a lot during the biggest test of his life, a time when all his physical strength and preparation counted for nothing as Leah contended with stage 4 neuroblastoma. Now, he wants to pass it forward.

“I wanted to give her battle against cancer a purpose,” Still said. “I wanted to use her battle to shed light on what it is like to go up against cancer. That gave me the energy to get through it.

“I tell everyone that you have to fight for all four quarters. You have to make the decision to give it everything.”

As the pandemic hit, principles of resiliency have become more valuable and relevant than ever. Still no longer has to travel to deliver his talks, but is even busier than before, called upon to discuss coping methods with corporations and groups.

“People find it hard when they stress out over things they have no control over,” he added. “I try to teach the importance of controlling the controllables. I learned that through Leah’s experience during those dark times. Use this time to strengthen yourself mentally.”

Last week, he also passed on advice to young athletes from TRUE Lacrosse via a Zoom call, to share his story and encourage them to find ways to turn the current shutdown of typical American life into a period of strengthening, not dejection.

While Devon works, Leah is doing her schooling online, which was fun at first, until, like for so many other kids, it quickly got old. She’s funny and quirky and, according to her Dad, has the mind of a 21-year-old.

She told me she misses NFL games because it was a good time and she got to hang out with other kids and do stuff like meet the cheerleaders, but it’s really okay, she assures me, because there are other things to do.

Her birthday celebration was a highlight, but in truth, every day is pretty good when you’re 10 years old and the sun is shining.

She likes math and social science and playing with her new baby sister, eight-month-old Aria.

She talks quickly and is a bundle of sparkling energy to chat with, but she’s looking forward to going and playing outside right now, which is the perfectly happy reason to finish the conversation — and to give the story its happy ending.