Former NFL player Devon Still is coming home for Father’s Day. A Camden native, Still attended Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington before moving on to Penn State, where he was an all-American defensive lineman.
Even though he now lives in Houston, Still maintains that “Philadelphia is home.”
It’s where he’ll get to be with his father this weekend. It’s where he hosts an annual gala for his Still Strong Foundation, which provides financial support for non-medical bills to families with children battling cancer. It’s also where he will serve as the Philadelphia Soul’s honorary captain at the coin toss Sunday before their game against the Atlantic City Blackjacks.
Most important, though, Philadelphia is where Still’s daughter, Leah, spent crucial moments of her fight with cancer.
In June 2014, two years after the Cincinnati Bengals selected Still with the 53rd pick of the 2012 NFL draft, Leah was found to have Stage IV neuroblastoma. She was 4 at the time, and the diagnosis turned Still’s life upside down.
Going back to his time at Penn State, he had already confronted the bleak reality that is dealing with pediatric cancer. He volunteered at the Hershey Medical Center and offered day-in-the-life tours of the Nittany Lions football facilities to families whose children were fighting the disease.
He caught glimpses of the lives of the people taking his tours there’s only so much that one can gather about a cancer-stricken family’s battle in less than a day. But just a couple of years without hosting visitors to the complex would pass before his familiarity with his guests’ experiences became all too intimate.
“My biggest regret was not actually sitting down and talking with the families and figuring out what the day in the life was of a family who was battling cancer,” Still said. “When my daughter was diagnosed, unfortunately I found out what exactly that was.”
While Leah’s cancer diagnosis was devastating, Devon recognized his privilege as an NFL player.
“I know that I was in a fortunate position playing in the NFL,” he said. “I had good health care to help me with a lot of the medical costs and I was making a good amount of money in the NFL, but a lot of people are not in that situation. A lot of families lose 40 percent of their annual household income due to cancer treatment and work-related disruption.”
Without missing a beat, he organized the Still Strong Foundation to aid those less fortunate than he was.
After his March 2015 announcement that Leah had undergone successful surgery to remove the tumor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Bengals waived him in September. Stints with the Houston Texans and New York Jets followed until Still announced his retirement from football in 2017.
Looking back, Still thinks that he and his daughter learned from each other during their battles with football-related injuries and cancer, respectively. He recalled that while Leah turned to friends and family for strength, he and his wife, Asha Joyce, actually looked to Leah.
“Sometimes we had moments where we felt weak because of everything that was consuming us, but when we looked at my daughter’s smile, it helped uplift us to continue to fight.”
It originated while in the hospital, but Devon and Leah still use a “game time” mantra to face each obstacle that a day might present. No longer on the gridiron, Devon travels to speak about resilience in promotion of his foundation and book, Still in the Game, as well as visiting cancer patients with Leah. The hospital visits are triggering, but Still is resolute in his commitment to help others who lack the resources that he had.
“It’s exhausting," Still said. "I feel like I suffer from PTSD from what Leah went through. It’s hard for me to go into the hospitals and hear these machines going off, or see little kids walking around in the same position that my daughter was in a few years ago, because it brings up a lot of bad memories. But I made a promise in 2014 that we were going to fight for these families, and that promise didn’t have any 'ifs’ attached to it.”
Nevertheless, the relationships he creates with patients are rewarding. Still is grateful for those who let him into their lives, and he finds that providing comfort to children in need is satisfying in a way that football never was.
“I feel like football gave you a platform, in my experience, to change lives monetarily,” he said. “It’s bigger than money. It’s about life. It’s about bringing joy to some kids during their last days, so I don’t take it for granted that I can help put a smile on a kid’s face.”
These days, Devon and Leah try to make up for lost time, spending as much time outside as possible. Leah, now 8, started playing sports this year. Seeing his daughter on the soccer field gives Devon a pride that he didn’t expect to feel.
As much as Leah’s health has improved, Devon has also come a long way from weeping on the floor of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital chapel. Years removed from helping his daughter through her fight, he’s waiting, hopefully, for March 2020, when he and Leah will celebrate five years in remission at his foundation’s For Our Children Gala back home in Philadelphia.