"Just to be with the guys and get my head off of what’s going on for that hour or two and just step away and to get myself together so I can be a strong support system for her when I go back. I needed that."
In the heat of training camp
That’s what happens when you are a third-year backup defensive tackle for the Bengals and have a four-year-old daughter with Stage 4 cancer. You came this close to giving up the game and not going to training camp last week until you realized you need them both so very dearly.
“The biggest issue was with her hair. She loves hair,” Still said before Sunday’s practice with a smile that keeps him going. “She loves long hair. So when we found out her hair was going to fall out, we just told her … one of her favorite princesses is Rapunzel. So we told her the way that Rapunzel’s hair got long was that she cut it all off and let it grow back.
“So when we told her that story, she was happy to cut her hair off, and then I cut my hair off. I think it brings ease to her knowing that she can just look at me and we both have bald heads. I’m not growing my hair back until she grows her hair back.”
That may take a while but Devon and Leah have all the time in the world. She is being transferred to Cincinnati’s Children Hospital from her stints at hospitals in Delaware and Philadelphia on Thursday and on Friday she’ll begin her third round of chemotherapy. She’ll need another round after that before they attempt to remove the Neuroblastoma tumor in her abdomen that has spread to her hips and bone marrow.
The Bengals have rallied. Once she was diagnosed back on June 2, head coach Marvin Lewis was on the phone making sure he was satisfied with the doctors and hospitals.
“So he knows if we have to call the Philadelphia Eagles or whoever we need to call, we’re going to call and make sure his daughter gets the best care possible,” Lewis said.
Lewis told him not to worry about coming to Cincinnati for the spring camps and mandatory minicamp and defensive line coach Jay Hayes told him he’d be there with anything he needed. And his current teammates jumped in last week when Still came up with an idea to honor Leah with one of his former teammates at Penn State.
“They pledge to donate a certain amount for every sack our defense has, whether it’s 10 cents, a hundred dollars, whatever amount it is,” Still said. “Whatever sacks we get, it gets taken off their card every week and they get notified of it….Basically what made me do that is taking something negative and turning it into a positive.”
Still, rehabbing the balky back that has prevented him from the success predicted for him as a 2012 second-rounder, slept on a hospital cot for two straight weeks during that god awful June. He had back surgery to repair the disk he herniated in a Dec. 18 practice back on Jan. 9, but it was all moot because he couldn’t see himself playing here if she was there.
“I didn’t come back for OTAs or minicamp because I wasn’t comfortable leaving my daughter. Even coming out here for training camp. It was a hard decision. But as long as she’s going to be here (Thursday) that made it a lot easier,” Still said.
In the end, the game helped him make the call. He needed his teammates. She needed the insurance. They needed each other. The fact that they told him that Cincinnati’s Children’s had the world’s No. 1 surgeon for her cancer helped two and two add up to four.
“It crossed my mind a lot of times whether I was going to come out here or not. Just because my family is No. 1. It takes priority over football, especially with my daughter. I contemplated it a lot,” Still said. “I felt like me, especially, I needed football to kind of balance things out because it messed my head up when everything happened. Just to be with the guys and get my head off of what’s going on for that hour or two and just step away and to get myself together so I can be a strong support system for her when I go back. I needed that.
“When you get hit hard with something like that, you’re not really thinking too much. You’re not thinking too clearly. You’re just focused on what’s going on at that point in time. And at that point in time my main focus was to be there for my daughter and being that support system. Football doesn’t come before my daughter. But like I said, the deciding factor was the surgeon out here at Children’s, the insurance, being able to support my daughter when she overcomes this battle and just being able to have a getaway, trying to keep my life as normal as possible so that I don’t stress out too much and not be able to be there for my daughter.”
Still has had his own health issues. His second season was marred by a dislocated elbow before his back went out on him.
“(He’s) a guy you’re rooting for to continue to ascend,” Lewis said. “In his first two seasons as soon as he got going and doing good things, he got pulled out of there. You want to have good things happen for him.”
Still turned 25 two weeks ago, but his demeanor has always been older. When he arrived in 2012 as one of Joe Paterno’s last captains, he calmly handled all the questions connected with the downfall of the Penn State program, much like he did the year before when he basically became the team spokesman in the middle of a quicksand of a season. On Sunday morning he was sad and reasoned while also passionate and defiant.
“He’s very calm. He’s always been a very calm guy,” Hayes said. “I would say he’s handing it very well. I’ve never been in a situation like that. I have no idea what to say to him other than I’m praying for him.”
But her disease has changed him. It has changed everything.
“My head is messed up, to be honest with you. It’s messed up. Sometimes I feel bi-polar," Still said. "Sometimes I wake up and I’m optimistic. Sometimes I wake up and it’s just heavy on me. It’s definitely a roller-coaster. Being here playing football, being here with the guys, having a reason to laugh sometimes takes a lot of that sorrow off of me, or the depression, whatever you want to call it. Playing football helps out a lot."
Now he’ll be able to play football near her and that is going to mean everything. It turns out that she is supplying as much strength to him as he is to her.
“If she didn’t lose her hair, you really wouldn’t know she was a kid with cancer because she still has a high energy level. She knows what she’s battling, but she doesn’t know the severity of it. So she’s still in high spirits. She kind of motivates us,” Still said. “She’s kind of our strength in this. As long as she fights hard we have no reason to complain. We go to the hospital and there are hundreds other kids with the same thing, so we try as much as possible not to whine about it because we understand we’re not the only family going through it. We’re just trying to hold it together as long as possible.”
Lewis always sends his rookies for a spring afternoon to the Ronald McDonald House, the place where loved ones of young cancer patients live next to Cincinnati Children’s. Still remembers his trip. Even more now.
“One time I was sitting in the hospital with my daughter and she was going through the channels and they had one of the stations where the patients are in there and had their own network where they talking on it,” he said. “I had a flashback to my rookie year we went to the hospital and participated in their station they had where patients called in and talked to us. It’s crazy to see. I understood how important it was as a rookie to go to the hospital. Now being a parent of a child in the hospital you appreciate what they do for those kids a lot more now. “
Football is not No. 1. Leah is. But he’s thankful he’s got both of them.
“Football helps take away from a lot of the stuff that’s going through my mind. Even sometimes when I’m out there on the field it crosses my mind and I have to try to get myself out of it and get myself back into football,” Still said. “But when she gets up here next week it will probably be a lot easier knowing I can just drive to the hospital right down the street and see her if I need to.”
A princess always stays in the best places.