There aren't many days in Devon Still's life that could have been any better than Tuesday, the first day of the Bengals' three-day mandatory minicamp.
He returned to the team for the first time this offseason with news that his daughter's treatment for complications in her liver from chemotherapy is working and 5-year-old Leah's seven-week hospital stay in Philadelphia could be over in a matter of days.
And not only that, her dad showed up for work in what he says is the best shape of his life at 296 pounds, 18 less than the end of last season and just a week removed from a career-best performance of bench-pressing 405 pounds five times.
"Quicker. Move better. I didn't need all that weight to play inside," Still said before Tuesday's practice, recounting why he needs to be slimmer at defensive tackle. "As long as I still have the same strength to control those blocks and stuff, I don't need to be 317.
"I know for a fact it was," said Still of the negative impact of his weight. "Just off of last year, I wasn't working out properly. I was missing my workouts to fly back and be with my daughter. I wasn't eating right, whether it was from depression or whatever. But I was able to start eating right and getting my weight back down…If anything, it's improved (my strength). So I'm looking forward to what I can do on that football field and making sure I'm not just weight room strong, that it translates to the field."
But the best news, of course, is that Leah is back on the road to recovery. The joyful news back in March that she had gone into remission of neuroblastoma, a rare form of pediatric cancer, was soon tempered by news that her liver had developed a life-threatening condition. But the family found out on Monday that her medicine is kicking in to take control of the problem. Although the camp is mandatory, Still wouldn't have reported if Leah hadn't been showing signs of improvement.
"I didn't know from last week whether I was going to come out here or not because of her complication, but she started showing a good turnaround," Still said. "I have a lot of family and friend support that is there with my daughter now. It feels good to get away for a couple of days and just get back to being here with the team and going out there and practicing…I've been gone for long enough."
Still didn't get involved in any team drills on Tuesday and only worked in individual sessions.
"He's got that twinkle in his eye," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We can't get him back fully in football right away, because he's not been with us. We'll check his level and get him going back physically, but he hasn't been out there with us every day, so we're not going to subject him to possible injury over these three days."
During the offseason Still knew he'd get in his daily workout, he just never knew when because it depended on how Leah was doing. Still's mother moved in to help ease his schedule and now the good times are flowing again. It's unclear if Leah is able to travel to the ESPYs in Los Angeles next month when she and her father are presented with ESPN's Jimmy V Perseverance Award.
But if she goes, she'll be joined by the parents of the late Lauren Hill. Together, Leah Still and Hill, the Mount St. Joseph College basketball player whose fight against brain cancer captured Cincinnati and the world, became the faces of pediatric cancer last year.
"I have a lot of contact with them," he said of the Hills. "We were down at the Dick Vitale Gala together, and we've been keeping in touch since then…It means a lot, and I know it would mean a lot to Lauren for us to keep that relationship going and to continue to try to raise awareness for cancer.
"Spending time with any family that's in the same situation as me helps out because you are able to sit there and talk to each other and know the person across from you understands what you are actually going through and not just saying they understand. And you give each other pointers on how you make it through different phases of dealing with cancer."
The next step for Leah is to get mobile and off the pain medication and then she'll be able to go home. The next phase won't be as tough.
"We're going to do radiation on the site where she had her tumor which is not going to be as bad as the previous radiation she's had," Still said. "That's all going to be outpatient. Then she's going to have something called immuno-therapy to try to boost her immune system back up."
Still couldn't help notice that the Bengals have beefed up the tackle spot since the end of last season with the re-signing of old friend Pat Sims, as well as drafting Arizona State's Marcus Hardiston in the fourth round. It is now a pitched battle for what could be the last tackle spot.
"There's nothing wrong with competition. It brings the best out of people. Our defensive line room is loaded right now, so everybody's going to have to bring their best to training camp and I'm looking forward to the competition," Still said.
All he has to do is turn to Leah for a little push.
"She's beat cancer, and it's allowed me to focus a lot on football and getting back in shape. It's just trying to repay the Bengals for everything they did for me last season," he said. "You watch these kids fight for their life: they keep a smile on their face. They never give up. They're resilient. And if you ever watch that -- like I've watched that for a year -- it changes everything about you. It lets you know you have to make the most of every opportunity that you have. I have an opportunity right now to make this Bengals team and I'm going to try to do it."