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Devon Still's new career: trying to tackle childhood cancer

Joe Kay, AP Sports Writer | 5/5/2018, 10:33 a.m.
Devon Still describes his daughter as "your typical, soon-to-be 8-year-old." Nothing's typical about Leah Still , who faced long odds ...
In this April 12, 2016, file photo, former Houston Texans defensive end Devon Still and his fiancee Asha Joyce pose with their daughter, Leah, 5, in New York. Still retired from football and started his second career, trying to help families cope with childhood cancer. He's using lessons learned through his experience with 7-year-old daughter Leah, who became a national story during her recovery from the disease. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

CINCINNATI — Devon Still describes his daughter as "your typical, soon-to-be 8-year-old." Nothing's typical about Leah Still , who faced long odds against reaching that eighth birthday. Or about her father, a former NFL defensive lineman who retired after last season and has immersed himself in a second career — helping other families deal with childhood cancer.

"We call it recycling our pain," Still said.

Still retired last December after another foot injury sidetracked his career, deciding that at 28 years old, it was time to move on to something else. It was a difficult moment — he'd played football since age 13 and spent three years with the Cincinnati Bengals and one with the Houston Texans.

"The most successful people know when it's time to call audibles," he said.

Even when that means giving up a promising career that began when he was a second-round pick out of Penn State.

"Since I got to the NFL in 2012, I feel it's been a roller coaster," Still said in a phone interview from Houston, where he now lives. "I tell people all the time that my life has been like climbing a mountain. When I got to the top of the mountain, the view wasn't what I thought. Making it in the NFL wasn't what I thought. I had so many injuries."

The biggest surprise came in June 2014, when Leah — then 4 — was diagnosed with stage four of a rare cancer that affects primarily infants and young children. She was given a 50/50 chance to survive.

Still shared her story through videos and interviews. Sports fans as well as people who couldn't name an NFL team became engrossed in her struggle. Surgeons removed a tumor from her abdomen. She got chemotherapy, radiation and experimental treatments. There were setbacks and very dark days when the treatments seemed to be inadequate.

More than three years later, the cancer is in remission and Leah is "just trying to be a kid again," as her father describes it. In addition to attending school, she's tried gymnastics and cheerleading. She's signed up for acting classes.

And Still is trying to recycle those difficult years into helping other parents going through the same experience.

He formed the Still Strong Foundation in 2015, helping families dealing with childhood cancer to cover non-medical bills so they can devote more time and resources to fighting the disease. He works with other foundations such as the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation trying to find new treatments.

He's also gone back to school as part of his second career.

Still got a degree in criminal law at Penn State with the idea of helping juvenile delinquents when his football career ended. He's working on a master's degree in leadership at the University of Houston that will help him navigate corporate culture as he advocates for families.

At times when he's sharing his story with families, those memories of Leah's ordeal return fresh. He's gotten to know children who don't survive the disease.