VICE Sports Q&A: Devon Still on Father's Day, Getting Back to Football, and Playing with J.J. Watt
Devon Still, who left football behind to care for his daughter Leah while she underwent cancer treatment, talks fatherhood and his return to the NFL with Houston
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
This Father's Day will be a very special one for Houston Texans' defensive lineman, Devon Still. Two years ago, he was trying to make the Cincinnati Bengals' roster when his four-year-old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma stage 4 cancer, which is often fatal. Still put his NFL career on hold to help his daughter. He slept next to her hospital bed for weeks.
The Bengals had cut Still that summer, but they resigned him to their practice squad so that his benefits would continue to pay for Leah's treatment. The organization allowed Still's jersey to be sold with proceeds going to fund pediatric cancer research. The NFL community and fans across the country sent donations and messages of support as Leah faced surgery.
Still sat out the 2015 season as Leah underwent surgery. Months later, she was pronounced to be "cancer free," and last January, Still announced that Leah had "really beat cancer." That same month, Still signed a contract to play for the Texans and just last month, he married his fiancé, Asha, who was by his side throughout Leah's cancer fight.
The last two years have been an emotion filled roller coaster ride for the Still family and they will celebrate Fathers' Day this Sunday with a healthy and happy, Leah.
VICE Sports: How's Leah?
Devon Still: She's doing wonderful. She finished up treatment a couple of months ago, so she is getting back to being a normal kid. This month, she graduates from kindergarten, so things are really starting to go in a positive direction.
With all that you and Leah have been through, I would think that Father's Day has got to be as special to you, this year, as to just about any other dad in the world.
It is because with my daughter battling cancer, I had a chance of losing her, but she continued to fight. This will actually be our first Father's Day with her out of the hospital, so I am definitely looking forward to spending some time with her.
It was a scary two years. When she first got diagnosed, we tried a treatment that ultimately didn't work. I think, at that moment, we were scared that we were going to lose my daughter, but we found a different treatment that put her into remission. The problem was, that while she was going through the stem cell transplant, she developed V.O.D. (Veno-Occlusive Disease). The chemo was so high that it made the veins in her liver enlarge and it put her life at risk, but she continued to fight as she always does and she made it through that also.
Did Leah's battle with cancer make you stronger, too?
It definitely did. I think anybody who goes through that type of battle; it makes you stronger because it allows you to see what life is all about. It allows you to cherish every moment that you have with your loved ones, because at any second, it could be gone.
You get beat up on the football field all the time, but there's not a whole lot of pain that is worse than when something happens to your kid, is there?
Right. Especially in this type of situation. There is really no comparison between playing football and battling cancer, because we are not fighting for our lives on the football field. We are fighting for a job.
As a parent, to watch your kid battle cancer is really hard because you are really limited to what you can do for the child besides be there and comfort them through their battle. The pressure is really on them to continue to fight whenever the times get rough.
Throughout Leah's battle, the country seemed captivated by her maturity, at her very young age, and her ability to overcome adversity. You talk about your daughter getting back to being normal. What does that mean now for her and for you?
Leah got to go back to school, which she missed out on when she was diagnosed in preschool. She gets to be around other kids and go outside, enjoy the playground, learn how to ride a bike, or go swimming. Those were all things that she had to put on hold while she was battling cancer. To see her get back to that is definitely a blessing for me and my family.
How heart-warming was it for you, Devon, to see the outpouring of concern from the football community and people around the country when Leah was first diagnosed with cancer and when she was in the hospital? So many people stepped up and, I know, that the Bengals sold jerseys to help fund pediatric cancer research. Other teams, and people, donated money. How cool was that for you during that difficult time?
We needed that. Fighting pediatric cancer is tough on a family, but it helps when you see that you have so many people rooting for you. Those times when it gets hard and you want to give up? You know you can't give up because there are so many people behind you, pushing you to see you beat this disease. Having that for my family helped push us through those dark times.
There were a lot of times when I wanted to give up but my fiancé continued to push me at times when I didn't think that I could continue to go on. Just seeing that my daughter had the attitude that she was not going to give up, no matter what she was going through because we needed her. It really influenced me to go on.
You put your wedding on hold for two years while you helped Leah, but you finally got married, last month. Congratulations.
Thanks. Yeah. I did. When Leah was diagnosed, me and Asha got engaged because I had an understanding of how hard that role was going to be for us. I knew that I had to give everything to my daughter, as far as mentally, and that would take away from my fiancé, at the time. I thought that giving her the ring would allow her to know that she always had my heart no matter what I was going through. We wanted Leah to be our flower girl, so we decided to hold off on the wedding until she was able to beat cancer. We wanted her to walk down the aisle healthy. It was a very special day.
Now you are with the Houston Texans. You have been away from football for a year and, quite frankly, for a while there Leah was the star of the family. Is it time for dad to get back to being the star again?
Oh yeah. It is time to put the focus back on football. I am blessed with an amazing opportunity. For the past two years, I dedicated myself to my daughter and now that she has beaten cancer, I have been given another opportunity at my dream of playing in the NFL.
You join a defensive line that has a guy by the name of J.J. Watt, the NFL's defensive player of the year, and a pretty good veteran by the name of Vince Wilfork, as well. Have you been able to pick their brains any? Have you been able to learn from these guys?
I stay in their back pockets. (Laughs)
When you've got J. J. and he's won two defensive player of the year awards, if you don't try to learn from that man, then something is wrong. Vince is in his thirteenth year in the league, so he has seen everything. You can really pick his brain about certain situations and how you handle it. They have both been a real big help for me. Being away from the game for year definitely has its disadvantages, but being around those guys, really caught me up back to speed.
I understand that you and Leah actually had some kind of relationship with J.J. Watt before you ever got to Houston. What was that tall about?
We had a chance to meet him at the "NFL Honors" ceremony just after I had signed with the Texans. My daughter had a chance to meet J.J. and he welcomed her to Texas. I don't know what else he said to her, but she fell in love with him. Actually, on the ride back to the hotel after the event, she sat with J.J. on the bus instead of me, and that never happens.
What do you feel that you have to do, this year, to be a contributor to the Texans?
I have to play my football. If I can give that same dedication to the game that I gave my daughter over these past two years, then I think everything is going to turn out the right way.