'Heck of a heart'

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Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes has the most crowded room in preseason.

As his position coach, Jay Hayes is one of Devon Still's biggest fans. As the Bengals defensive line coach, he is also supervising the most competitive group on the roster as they head into Thursday night's pre-season finale (7-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Indianapolis.

Earlier this week, Hayes sat in his office counting the chairs, as if reminding himself after 13 years this is quite a moment.

"I've got 12 guys," Hayes said. "All of them have made the most of their opportunities as they have come up. All these guys are capable players. It's a good situation for us.  It's a nerve-wracking situation for them."

Still has already proven to have nerves of steel. After all, he is The Man of Still. More than a reserve tackle, but a folk hero of sorts. A guy  who has taught us about fatherhood, hope, love, and grit as he shepherds his daughter through a terrifying Stage 4 cancer diagnosis to remission. In the past year he has gone from roster footnote to national voice, taking his sweet five-year-old princess Leah every step of the way as if it were one of her favorite Disney rides.

 "He's got a heck of a heart, man," said Domata Peko, the nose tackle of the Bengals front. "He came back in great shape, ready to go, and did it all going through what he's been through. It's awesome."

How Still made it through last year is anyone's guess.

It began in the first week of June in 2014 when he ended up taking Leah to the doctor instead of her ballet recital. Coming off back surgery, he got ready for training camp sleeping on a hospital cot in Philadelphia's Children's Hospital after receiving the harshest of news.

In a whir of texts, face times, and weekly trips back to Philly, Still made the Bengals practice squad before getting promoted to the roster early in the season. It was a season defined by their crusade and the unforgettable night Leah and the Bengals presented a check to Cincinnati's Children's Hospital for more than $1 million, proceeds from the sales of her dad's No. 75 jersey.

By the time Leah beat the odds and went into remission, they had been chosen to receive one of sports' most prestigious awards in July at The Espys. After they gave them the Jimmy V. Never Give Up Award, it was as if Still's powerful acceptance speech released him to focus on the game.

"I'm just trying to put my best effort on tape so that I can show what happened last year is not affecting me right now," Still said. "That I'm focused on football. I think I've showed that this preseason in practices and during games and hopefully if it doesn't work out here I'll get an opportunity somewhere else."

He dropped 30 pounds and at 295 he feels like it has made a difference. Plus, the 82 pre-season snaps after playing just 237 plays in the 2014 regular season have been a boon.

"I'm a lot more active. Running to the ball a lot more than I ever have since I've been here," Still said. "Since I didn't play (in the last three games), I just needed to get these snaps to get back into football form after missing the (spring workouts)."

He knows missing the OTAs has hurt his chance, but there was never another option as Leah went through immunity issues from her stem cell treatments.  She's been cleared to travel but her dad doesn't want her to risk it. He doesn't want her to start preschool yet, but says she's well enough that home school is an option.

"You can't ask me how hard it was. I love spending time with my daughter, so I appreciated being there with my daughter," Still said. "As far as not getting those reps that other guys had, I guess it put me back in the coaches eyes because they weren't able to see me progress like they were able to watch other players do. I just took the opportunity to show what I can do in practice and stuff like that when I got back."

But Hayes says he has noticed improvement.

"It seems like he's playing better. He's playing with a lot more energy. He's doing better," Hayes said.

"I've told him you're doing a good job. So are the other guys. It's just a crowded room at the present time."

How crowded? There are an even dozen and two, maybe three, have to go. There is the starting four of Peko and Geno Atkins next to him at tackle and left Carlos Dunlap and right end Michael Johnson. Johnson, with an MCL knee sprain, is questionable for the opener, with Wallace Gilberry, the first man off the bench poised to start if needed. Also backing up Johnson are Will Clarke and Margus Hunt. That's seven.

Backing up Peko and Atkins are two highly-regarded veteran run stuffers in Brandon Thompson and Pat Sims, both of who have missed the last two pre-season games with unknown injuries. Head coach Marvin Lewis hopes both play against the Colts. Still had his best game of the preseason the other night against the Bears.

That's ten.  And backing up both ends and tackles is fourth-rounder Marcus Hardison, a fast, raw 315-pounder whose speed and potential were on display the other night. Another intriguing rookie is undrafted Clemson rookie DeShawn Williams, who has flashed the same characteristics.

There is something for everybody and now the Bengals have to hash it out. Youth? Experience? Both? It's just hard to see them not keeping their three most recent draft picks along the front in Hunt (2013), Clarke (2014), and Hardison (2015).

After that, take your guess. Certainly Still isn't counting spots or guessing.  Not after what he's just been through.

"Numbers don't mean anything to me. I learned a lot from what my daughter went through this last year," Still said. "One thing you don't focus on is numbers. All you can do is control your attitude on how you attack every single day.  Things will work out."

It worked out last year. As a bonus, when the Bengals signed him to the practice squad last season, he was vested for five years for medical insurance. Whether he makes it or not, he's in a room full of admirers.

"What he's had to go through as a parent, I can't imagine what it would be like for anybody," Hayes said. "He's handled it better than anyone could imagine.  I admire him for it. I was proud just to watch handled it so well."

Still's locker is still crowded with presents for Leah. On this day, there looked to be a Disney princess comforter on the shelf.

"Oh yeah," Still said. "They keep coming."

So do the admirers. Football or no football.

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