*Dear Leah *
I want to tell you that I think you are brave.
I also think you are beautiful.
My mom told me you have cancer.
I know you will beat cancer because you are brave.
The letter is in a child's handwriting but is crafted with an age-old sentiment. It is printed second-grade carefully on a sheet of ruled notebook paper. It is in a bag perched precariously in the locker of Devon Still, which has become another bureau for Federal Express.
The packages keep coming every day from equipment managers Jeff Brickner and Adam Knollman. Sometimes they are just addressed to Devon Still. Sometimes just to Leah Still c/o Cincinnati Bengals. Paul Brown Stadium. Sometimes First Class. Sometimes Priority. Cincinnati, OH. Sometimes there's a note, a card, a thought. Sometimes not.
But the return address is always from the heart.
"There's nothing he hasn't got in there," says fellow defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry, Still's locker mate.
Still looks at the pile competing with sweat pants, T-Shirts, shower shoes and the original No. 75 jersey and shakes his head.
"Every couple of days I carry them out to my car. My car is filled with them. My house is filled with them," Still says. "I know she's happy about it. It's like Christmas every day. What kid isn't going to like that?"
Leah is coming to town and maybe that's why Still cleaned the locker out this week. It is the first time his four-year-old daughter has seen him play and everything has to be just right.
In the five short months since she has been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that began in her stomach, she has become a national face of the disease and is already the MVP of Thursday night's game with the Browns.
And, the nation is going to see her on the field at the end of the first quarter when Bengals vice president Katie Blackburn presents a check for $1.2 million to Cincinnati Children's Hospital, the result of those No. 75 jerseys of her dad's that went for $100 each and sold out in record time at the Bengals Pro Shop
But in the end, it is a private, knowing moment between father and daughter. Still tried to put it into words earlier this week.
"It will probably be the most special game I'm ever going to play because I know my daughter is going to be here to watch me play," Still had said. "All the money that's been raised for the cancer research is because of her strength and because she's fighting this disease. So it's definitely going to be an emotional game for me."
He's got a lot of teammates for this one.
From Windermere, Fla. comes a box with four handmade stocking caps. One is orange and black. From Sophisticated Life Designs in New Orleans, La., comes a package with pieces for an elaborate princess castle. From Foxboro, Mass., comes an autographed photo from the New England mascot: "To Leah. You're No. 1. Pat Patriot." There is an open box from Miami with a stuffed animal wearing a Dolphins jersey along with a Dolphins cup.
"We're throwing that crap away," says Brandon Thompson, his other locker mate and fellow D-tackle, who is just kidding.
"The Texans sent a bunch of stuff from* Frozen*," Still says of her favorite movie. "The Eagles and Saints sent chocolate and bears and balloons. And . . . did I just say the Eagles?"
"Yes," says Thompson, as if this happens regularly.
"The Jets sent the same thing," Still says. "I think every team has sent something."
The Patriots cheerleaders are special friends after they all wore her dad's jersey during the game last month following a video tribute. There is a package of cards from them in a bag. There is one with a photo of a cat on top of the stack.
"Dear Leah: The Patriots cheerleaders in New England are thinking of you and sending smiles your way. Love, Coach Tracy." Then with the drawing of a heart: "I hope you like this kitty on front as much as I do."
I think it is awesome how you and your dad are helping so many other kids with cancer.
I do something that helps animals.
It is called Parker's Pet Project. I wanted to give you one of my shirts.
I hope you like it.
The letter on the ruled notebook paper is from a boy named Parker in Independence, Ky. According to the Parker's Pet Project web site, Parker was six last year when he was told he was too young to volunteer at the Kenton County Animal Shelter.
He didn't like the answer. So he figured he could ask family and friends for donations and his mom created a Facebook page (Parker's Pet Project) to help. When he was mentioned on a radio show about kids making a difference, the page went from about 100 to 1,000 likes as Parker became a shelter staple. According to parkerspetproject.com, he has brought donations and collections by the carload, and for Christmas and his birthday he asks for gifts for the animals instead of something for himself.
Like his new friend Leah, he didn't listen to what he couldn't do. Now kids who are as young as six can volunteer at the shelter.
There is a cardboard sign in the back of the locker with shiny letters spelling out "Get Well Soon Leah," from Mrs. Chancey's third-graders at Madeira Elementary. A few weeks ago in that spot was a box from New York City filled with every ballet accessory known to the art. Tutus, leotards, tights, slippers, shoes.
From Madeira to Broadway.
"People are thoughtful. The gifts are thoughtful," Still says. "You can tell they've been listening to the interviews because they send things she likes. She was in a ballet recital right around the time she was diagnosed."
But there may have been no more thoughtful gift than the one that arrived from Canton last month. Still nearly leaped out of his locker when he opened the box and saw a signed football.
"Leah, one super, sweet, strong little girl. May God be with you." Next to the words was a No. 12 drawn inside a heart. And then the signature.
"Jim Kelly. H of F '02."
Kelly, the Bills Hall of Fame quarterback, has been battling throat cancer for the past few years. Still didn't see it until a few hours later when he looked under the football and saw that Kelly had also sent a signed No. 12 jersey.
"The thing I remember when I was in the hospital (with Leah in August), I was watching TV and he announced he was cancer free," Still says. "I never thought that I would hear from him. I've got a lot of respect for what he did on the field, but more for him beating cancer."
Hall-of-Famers and third-graders and ballerinas and cheerleaders and . . . where does it all go?
"I don't mind at all,' he says of the space problem. "I'm always very appreciative that people are still thinking about my daughter and her fight. It means so much. It means people care."
Next to Parker's Pet Project shirt is a child's drawing of a massive football player in a No. 75 jersey towering over a little girl standing next to him.
Maybe some time you could come with me to help the animals.
If you want to help me, let me know.