The NFL Story You Need to Hear

Leah Strong

Leah Strong

There is a great story in the NFL that has gone largely underreported, possibly due to the media’s focus on the negative stories in the sports world. And just when I started to curse the media for neglecting to integrate this story more prominently into the sports world, I remembered that I am part of that problem, and therefore, just as much at fault as the rest of them (us). That stops now.

I’m a pretty emotional guy. I’ve been known to shed a few tears at the end of Big Fish, most episodes of Monk, and the occasional Subaru commercial. Rarely does that happen during a sporting event unless I jam my pinky finger really hard. Well, it happened Sunday night in the third quarter of the Bengals/Patriots game.

Devon Still is a defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals. His 4-year-old daughter Leah was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare type of childhood cancer, and given a 50/50 chance of survival. Devon says the doctor’s lip was shaking when he told Devon the reason for the pain in Leah’s leg – that there was a grapefruit-sized tumor in his daughter.

This diagnosis was back in June. When I first heard of this story, it was because the Bengals had cut Stills from their team during the preseason, but allowed him to stay on the 8-man practice squad so that he and Leah would still be covered under the NFL health insurance plan. It was a real classy thing to do, for a team whose job it is to win football games – with a CEO whose job it is to make money, to help a guy out like that, when they really didn’t need to. Still would later be signed to the active 53-man roster.

Later, in yet another classy move, I heard that the Bengals were donating ALL the proceeds from his jersey sales to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, even absorbing a $500,000 printing cost for the first 10,000 jerseys. Still’s jersey sold 4,000 units in one week, a record by a large margin. To date, they have raised over $1 million.

I assumed that there would be a few people in the football world who might help out, either to legitimately help or at least to look good. The Ravens missed this layup. Sean Payton, head coach of the Saints, did not. He bought 100 of these jerseys at $100 apiece, to help support Devon Still and his family. He donated the jerseys to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and a few other youth clubs in southwest Ohio. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly sent a surprise gift basket to Leah in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she is staying. And fans came with “Get Well Leah” signs the day he was activated to the 53-man roster.

Author’s Note: I am the father of a two-year-old girl and a soon-to-be zero-year-old boy. When researching for this piece, I had to stop writing to record a 19-minute “If I get hit with a bus tomorrow” video to my one and a half kids.

What is most touching about this story is that when Still talks, he sounds like a regular guy. He gets choked up. He talks about his daughter’s excitement over being on television. He says his focus wasn’t 100% on football. He sounds like a dad. A dad concerned for his child first and foremost, and football is his way of helping his family as best as he can. He doesn’t sound entitled. He doesn’t talk through lawyers or publicists. This isn’t a ploy to help his career. He says having a daughter at such a young age allowed him to become a man faster. He says he can’t remember what life was like before having a child.

Patriots Cheerleaders wearing Devon Still jerseys

Patriots Cheerleaders wearing Devon Still jerseys

Last Sunday night, in the Bengals/Patriots game, midway through the third quarter, the camera panned passed the Patriots cheerleaders coming out of a commercial break, as it often does. But instead of the usual tight, skimpy half-skirt things cheerleaders are known for, they were all wearing Devon Still jerseys. The PATRIOT cheerleaders were wearing BENGALS jerseys as a way of showing the team’s support for Devon and Leah Still. My tear glands were suddenly activated from the practice squad. I was glad that my wife doesn’t like to stay up to watch three football games in one day. She already thinks I’m a wus whenever a Subaru commercial comes on. The Patriots also played “Truly Brave,” a cancer awareness video starring Leah Still and other patients from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, on their Jumbotron during that commercial break. Robert Kraft, Patriots owner, also donated $25,000 in Leah’s name to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

In a sport where most people believe in gaining advantage wherever and however you can, where I once heard Hines Ward say “If you ain’t cheatin, you ain’t tryin,” and in a world where I was once heckled at the Washington area Susan G. Komen Race For a Cure for wearing an Eagles hat, the Patriots transcended that to show their support for a brother on national television, where it needed to be.

Leah has undergone her surgery successfully, but is not out of the woods yet. She has a long road of chemotherapy and radiation ahead of her to try to get to the cancer in her bone marrow before anyone can celebrate. So this story lacks a heartwarming ending. But it is being told now. And seeing such a positive reaction to a person in need transcend the lines of competition in such a violent sport is a pretty good start.

If you’d like to show your support by ordering a Devon Still jersey (or donating to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital), you may do so here. Jerseys will only be available through October 20th.

This story was originally published on So Much Sports as part of Dustin’s weekly NFL column, Quick Inside Slant.

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