Like everyone else with her on her brief, glorious drive through the lane of life, the Bengals were touched deeply by Lauren Hill's No. 22. Especially after a season they dealt with their own cancer case when Leah Still, the four-year-old daughter of defensive tackle Devon Still, joined with Hill to become the national face of young people in the fight.
When the 19-year-old Hill died Friday morning, Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals de facto offensive captain, recalled meeting her after she joined Leah Still in a Paul Brown Stadium box to watch the Bengals play the Browns. Whitworth and quarterback Andy Dalton had been one of the first ones to take up the layup for cancer awareness challenge from the Mt. St. Joseph freshman point guard.
"She just said, 'Thank you for the support and helping her make an impact,'" Whitworth texted. "But she didn't need us. She was the special individual."
When the PBS scoreboard flashed Hill's two layups for Mt. St. Joseph on that unforgettable early November Sunday during a break in the game against the Jaguars, Whitworth took a knee with tears in his eyes. Call it karma, but moments later a freshman named Hill, running back Jeremy Hill, put the game away for the Bengals with a 60-yard touchdown run.
Devon Still visited with Hill a few weeks before that and against the Jaguars he wore eye black spelling out "Lauren Strong," instead of "Leah Strong." He got approval from Leah, who knew Hill's story from a video her dad showed her. When he phoned her after the game, Leah wanted to know "how the girl who plays basketball did."
"Just being able to see Lauren live out her dream to play collegiate basketball and her not allowing this disease to slow her down. She's definitely an inspiration," Still said after the Jags game. "She's shown a lot of courage and strength to go through what she's going through."
On Friday, Still posted this message on Instagram with a picture of Leah and Hill at that Bengals-Browns game:
"Lauren never let this terrible disease define her. She didn't let it control whether she lived out her dream of playing college ball and she fought to live pass what doctors originally told her she would. Lauren left her mark on this world by showing people what it really meant to NEVER GIVE UP. So would I say she lost her battle with cancer?
"Hell no! Because of her fight and selfless act of using her fight to raise an incredible amount of money and awareness, doctors will one day find a cure for DIPG! It hurt like hell seeing the news this morning and i'm not even sure how I'm going to tell my daughter. In the past two weeks, two kids that I have met and developed relationships with have passed from cancer smh something's got to give its not right #For22 #LaurenStrong On Friday, Whitworth thought back to the brave girl on the scoreboard.
"Sad day, but I'm grateful for Lauren's spirit and the passion she had to make a difference," Whitworth wrote. "We talk about inspirational athletes in sports all the time. Lauren Hill, in my mind, for what she overcame is one of the greatest inspirational stories in sports. We all want our life to mean something and Lauren Hill accomplished that and then some!!"