When a child is born unto new parents, unbridled joy permeates the delivery room. For a moment, the parents see the world through rose-colored lenses as they seek to understand their child’s gifts and what makes them unique to the world. Mothers and fathers patiently wait on their new bundle of joy in sheer delight, as hopes for their newborn’s future happiness, and prosperity, fluently transcend life’s hardships.
The abovementioned experiences were no different for Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive tackle Devon Still and Channing Smythe upon the arrival of their daughter Leah Still. “I always knew there was something special about her,” Smythe said. “People always kind of flocked to her and they just love her.”
Leah’s gift of favor with others would later prove beneficial after Smythe and Still received news no parent wants to hear. On Jun. 2, 2014, doctors diagnosed Leah with Neuroblastoma, which had reached stage four. Neuroblastoma is a cancer that develops from immature nerve cells found in several areas of the body. It is most commonly found in the Adrenal glands, abdomen, chest, neck and near the spine. At the time of the diagnosis, doctors gave Leah a 50-50 chance of survival.
In the midst of dealing with such adverse circumstances with his daughter, Bengals’ OTAs and training camp were right around the corner. Still routinely found himself unable to focus on the game he loves. After informing the Bengals of his daughter’s illness the team excused him from OTAs to be with Leah as she began treatment.
Still returned for training camp but would miss several practices to be with his daughter. Additionally, Still sustained multiple injuries during the preseason, which ultimately led to him being cut just prior to the regular season. Still was told by the Bengals that they would sign him to their practice squad if he cleared waiver; and much to his delight, that’s exactly what took place. On Sept. 4, the Bengals signed Still to their practice squad.
After joining the practice squad, Still said,
“I wanted to make the roster, but I have a lot of stuff going on right now that I can’t give football 100 percent. They could’ve just washed their hands completely of it. Personally I was hoping that I was able to sign back with the Bengals for a lot of reasons. One being that they stuck with me since Jun. 2 when this all came out about my daughter. They’ve all been very helpful with just talking to me, just being there for me when I needed somebody to talk to [while] being away from my daughter.”
Still was poised to sit out the 2014 season to be with his daughter, but that was prior to the team expressing genuine concern, and rallying around his family to help in any way they possibly could. Another component Still had to consider was the cost of Leah’s treatment, which he told ESPN is expected to reach $1 million.
Being afforded the opportunity to participate on the Bengals’ team as a member of the practice-squad enables Still to provide two things for his ailing daughter. One being health benefits, as the NFL’s insurance policy will cover 100 percent of Leah’s medical expenses. “It was very vital to have that [health benefits] for this fight.” During the time he was on the practice squad, he was also able to spend more time with his daughter, as practice-squad players do not travel with the team. The flexibility to be a member of the practice squad, coupled with the ability to spend quality time with his family during this time was critical with Leah beginning another round of chemotherapy on Aug. 29. Leah’s test results following chemotherapy are expected Sept. 16. Following chemotherapy she will undergo surgery to remove the tumor from her abdomen.
With these events in mind, the reasons Still hoped to remain with the Bengals are rather apparent. “They know my situation, the work environment is easier for me because I’m around players that I know who I care about and who care about me,” Still told ESPN about the Bengals. “Right now, in the situation I’m in, I need to be in an environment where I know people care about my well-being, care about my family’s well-being.”
Taking Still’s entire situation into account, the Bengals’ coaching staff felt it was time to promote their former 2nd round draft pick out of Penn State. On Tuesday Sept. 9, Still was signed off the practice squad to the Bengals’ active roster. “We have an open roster spot, and this is the best football move we can make to fill it,” coach Marvin Lewis said.
Coach Lewis also said, “We think Devon is ready to rejoin our line rotation and be productive. It already was stated that a big reason Devon opened on the practice squad was that he couldn’t fully focus on football this preseason. He had to take care of daughter. But Devon has told us he feels ready to contribute now, so it’s the right move at the right time. And we’ve told Devon he can still be afforded the personal time he needs to attend his daughter’s care.”
Leah’s aforementioned gift of gaining favor with others, and her God-given ability to draw people near has prompted an outpouring of love by the general public. Following Still’s decision to share Leah’s diagnosis on social media, supporters across multiple continents began sending her gifts and get-well cards. Still also credits Penn State alumni for being incredibly supportive during this time.
Furthermore, the Bengals announced that they are donating all proceeds from the sales of Still’s No. 75 Jersey to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to support the fight against pediatric cancer. Once again, Leah’s gift of favor manifested itself as fans of the NFL, and those that are strictly fans of Leah showed their overwhelming support by setting a team record for jersey sales. Over 100 of Still’s jerseys were purchased in the first 24 hours at $100 each. In the second 24 hours the Bengals sold 10 times what they did in the first 24 hours and are currently processing orders that total over 1,000 Still Jerseys within a 48-hour span.
Saints head coach Sean Payton was moved by Still’s story and contributed by purchasing 100 jerseys.
“All the support that people have shown me and my family, it’s truly a blessing,” Still said. “I just wish my daughter could understand. But once she beats cancer and she gets a little older, she’ll be able to look back and see what it all meant.”
By God’s grace, we’ll all be able to look back and see how the charisma and the charm of a beautiful 4-year old girl brought people across the globe together for a tremendous cause. Smythe was correct about her daughter’s gift; people do flock, to her. People love her without knowing her from Adam, and her gift of favor with others is more apparent now than ever before.