FLORHAM PARK, NJ (AP) — Devon Still could hardly wait to break the news to his daughter.
The defensive lineman was playing football again after signing a deal with the New York Jets on Friday. And, he knew 7-year-old Leah would be absolutely thrilled.
After all they’ve been through together, this was cause for celebration.
“It’s been a rough couple of years,” Still said after his first practice with his new team. “I’ve been through a lot.”
That’s quite the understatement.
In 2014, Leah was diagnosed with cancer and became an inspiration to millions as her football-playing father shared details of her brave fight. She was given a prognosis of just over 50 percent to survive the stage 4 neuroblastoma that was ravaging her little body — grim odds that the Stills were determined to beat.
“I was crushed when I first heard it,” Still recalled. “But then after I let it settle in, our mindset was to do whatever we had to do to overcome it because once you start thinking too much about ‘why me?’ I think you already lose the battle.
“Once you have the mindset that you’re going to overcome it, then I think you have a chance of winning.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
Leah celebrated two years of her cancer being in remission on March 25, with a gala in Philadelphia for their “Still Strong Foundation” in Philadelphia.
“It’s honestly a blessing,” Still said. “When my daughter was diagnosed and she was going through treatment, there were times when we didn’t think my daughter was going to make it.”
Then a member of the Bengals, Still was kept on Cincinnati’s roster in 2014 partly so he’d have the health insurance to cover the costs of her treatments. The team also donated over $1 million in sales from Still’s jersey to Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati for pediatric cancer research and treatment.
During their battle with the disease, the two authored a children’s book together, “I Am Leah Strong.” They also made the rounds as guests on several talk shows. Leah even received the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPY Awards in 2015, when her father delivered an emotional speech that left many in the star-studded crowd searching for tissues to dab their tears.
Through it all, Leah has become a celebrity of sorts, something Devon says his little girl relishes.
“She compares herself to a Disney star,” Still said with a big smile. “I mean, at her age, I don’t think she really understands the impact she’s made on this world. Hopefully, when she gets older, the way the Internet is set up, she’ll be able to go back and look at the impact she had and really understand what she was able to do for the cancer community.”
Still spent all of 2015 as a free agent following three seasons with the Bengals, mostly caring for Leah. With his daughter on the road to recovery, Still turned his focus back to football and signed with Houston last offseason.
But his stint with the Texans was short-lived as he appeared in just three games before suffering a season-ending foot injury that required surgery.
The Jets worked Still out last year and then brought him back last week for another look. On Thursday afternoon, he got the call he had been waiting for all offseason.
“It’s been a rough seven months after getting injured last year in the fourth game, but I battled my way back through that,” Still said. “I’m just happy to be back on a team and be on a football field and have the opportunity to do what I love doing, and that’s playing football.”
Leah is at cheerleading camp in Houston, living with Still’s wife Asha — and the two plan to join Devon in New Jersey soon. But, she’ll get that long-distance call from Daddy first.
“I have a couple more hours before I’m able to break the news before the internet does,” Still said with a smile.
Still acknowledged that while his daughter was sick, his attention turned squarely to her. Now, he’s getting another opportunity at football without his mind being filled with worry.
“It’s definitely where all of my focus is on football right now,” he said. “As a father, I had to dedicate my life to my daughter. When you have kids, their dreams overtake your own dreams. I decided to put my dreams of playing football on the back burner, so my daughter could still be here, living.
“Now that she’s two years in remission, I’m giving my focus back to football.”
With the Jets, the 28-year-old Still he has a chance at a backup role on the defensive line. He also knows that even if he doesn’t make it, he needs to look only to his daughter for inspiration.
“Being positive, that’s the main thing,” Still said. “It’s all about your mindset because you get so much bad news during a battle like that. There are so many times you often want to give up, but if you believe you can overcome the battle, you always have something to fight for.”