Leah And Devon Still Return To Rule The Jungle Again
Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still sits on the bench with "Leah Strong" written on his face. Two years into his NFL career in 2014, Still’s daughter, Leah was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma — a cancer that starts in the adrenal glands. In 2015, Still announced that his daughter’s cancer was in remission, and it remains in remission today.
The Queen of Bengaldom is 12 and now officially a Ruler.
Leah Still, who has wanted to be a doctor ever since her fight with cancer, is shooting for all A's as a seventh-grader at her Houston, Texas middle school and The Sims 4 video game has replaced dolls. But she has never outgrown that magical night at Paycor Stadium eight years ago.
When they called to tell her and her dad, former Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still, that they had been chosen for Rulers of The Jungle for Sunday's game against the Falcons (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's FOX 19), she was thrilled.
"I'm just really excited to see everyone and all the energy that is there," says Leah Still, "because I look at some of the video when I was younger and it seemed really fun."
She can't remember much about that night in November of 2014, less than six months after they discovered a Neuroblastoma tumor in her abdomen had spread to her hips and bone marrow.
She does remember being on the field for the halftime ceremony during that Thursday night game against Cleveland when the Bengals celebrated raising more than $1 million for pediatric cancer from the sales of her dad's No. 75 Bengals jersey. They became the face of the everyday fight and with Leah cancer-free for seven years, the fight continues.
Bengals running back Joe Mixon has made sure of that. He had never heard of the Stills, but he helped one of his teenage buddies through the nightmare.
Gavin Schaffer, the son of his agent, Peter Schaffer, was 16 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Two years later he's cancer-free and playing midfield for Mount St. Mary's lacrosse in Emmitsburg, Md., while donating time to HEADstrong, a foundation founded by the late Hofstra lacrosse player Nick Colleluori dedicated to improving quality of life for those affected by cancer.
"(Mixon) was a very nice friend. He would call me now and then, but mostly text. Most of it was trash-talking," says Gavin Schaffer of their X-box relationship. "He was very encouraging. But it wasn't because of my situation. He treated me the same and that made me feel a lot better."
Peter Schaffer, who unbelievably went through it all before with his older daughter Lilian and her Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis, got plenty of support from clients like Mixon, Bengals right tackle La'el Collins and former Bengals cornerback Adam Jones.
"Even though they both beat it," Peter Schaffer says, "they want to pay it forward and help improve people's lives."
Which is why at next month's "My Cause, My Cleats," game, Mixon and Collins are going to wear cleats with HEADstrong's limestone green.
"Whatever we can do to help," Mixon says.
That's how it all started with Stills. The Still Strong Foundation survived the pandemic and plans another fund raising gala in Philadelphia next April.
"Despite COVID, we were able to answer all of our applications during that time," Devon Still says. "That was about $85,000 worth of household bills to whatever families with kids battling cancer went to a social worker and submitted applications for assistance."
Still, the Bengals' second-round pick of 2012 out of Penn State, retired in 2017 at 28 when injuries caught up with him in Houston with the Texans. As if his 2014 crusade with Leah that went international was a precursor, Still now teaches a virtual course in resiliency and mental health for the University of Pennsylvania that draws students from all over the world.
After getting his MBA and crisscrossing the country on speaking engagements for teams and corporations, Still got his Master's in applied positive psychology from Penn.
"When I retired from the NFL, I was speaking to a lot of companies about resilience. I wanted to go back to school to just learn the science," Still says. "I knew just from coming up in the environment I've been in with all the injuries I faced in football and Leah battling cancer and understanding it from a personal standpoint. But I wanted to understand how people in communities are able to overcome challenges in order to flourish.
"I just had a desire to really understand what resiliency was from a science standpoint so I can impact more people and more organizations."
He devised a curriculum he calls RISE (Resilience, Intelligence-growth mindset, Strengths-character strengths, Executive- functioning) and he's in talks with the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation to roll out a pilot program to use in schools.
He says the pandemic and its fallout has impacted "youth with all the stresses they're facing now,' and it caught his eye that when Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow unveiled his foundation a few weeks ago it had a mental health piece for students.
A long time ago, then, but he hasn't forgotten that 2014 night, either. It was one of the 30 games he played in that Bengals' No. 75 jersey that was going for $100 and charity.
"I'll never forget that night," Still says. "It gave a lot of purpose to our pain to be able to help out other people because of what we were going through. The number was not just about football. It was something much bigger."
Leah Still roots for the Bengals, but she doesn't have a favorite team. When she watches a game with her dad, "I probably take what team I want by whose winning." Her dad is still her favorite player. Her favorite subjects are science and social studies and she's looking forward to starting her science lab.
She's not sure where the medical field is going to take her.
"I haven't decided. I'm trying to figure out what kind of doctor I want to be," she says. "I really don't think I have to rush to figure out what I want to be."
Sunday is a lot easier to figure out.
She'll rule The Jungle.