Now that their lives are returning to normal, Leah and Devon Still can't wait for what comes with that.
For Leah, who's 5 years old, that means a regular bath without having to worry about the tubes in her chest through which chemotherapy and other treatments were administered during her 18-month battle with cancer. She can go back to school, she can take her gymnastics, ballet and swimming classes again.
For her dad, it means seeing his little girl grow up.
"Just seeing the type of woman that she comes into," Devon Still said. "I think this makes her more determined and appreciate life so much more. ... I think she’s destined for a lot of great things."
It also means returning to his own childhood dream of playing professional football. Last week the Texans signed Still, a defensive tackle, to a futures contract that is effective starting in March. The timing was a perfect coincidence. Leah finished her last cancer treatments on Monday night. With his daughter past the toughest part of the fight for her life, Still now feels comfortable rededicating himself to the sport he has loved since he was 13.
"She’s definitely excited," he said. "She’s been watching me since my junior year in college. She’s been going to my games. She understands I put my career on hold for her."
When Leah was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma in June 2014, Devon's first reaction was that nothing mattered but helping her fight it. When he learned how costly the treatments were, he knew NFL insurance would help pay for that. The Cincinnati Bengals, who drafted him in the second round in 2012, placed him on their practice squad. He was recovering from an injury and they also wanted to give him time to recover mentally from supporting his daughter through her treatments.
"Her personality is what got us through her fight," he said. "She never gave up. She was never negative about anything she was going through. She was always saying she was going to win. To be diagnosed at 4 years old and have that attitude, it’s contagious."
The Bengals called him up to the active roster in Week 2 of the 2014 season. After each Sunday game, he flew to Philadelphia to be with Leah. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis excused him from Monday meetings and he would be back with the team for Wednesday's activities.
“I was out there, but my mind was still back home with my daughter,” Still said. “I was lucky to be part of that organization because they let me come back home every week after game.”
Still remained with the Bengals through 2015's training camp, but faced an uphill battle. There were 10 defensive tackles competing for five roster spots. By the end of it the Bengals decided to move on. As a vested veteran, Still could retain the NFL's insurance even though the Bengals released him.
“Basically (the Bengals) told me that they was releasing me they wanted to put more focus on football this year, which I understood because it was pretty much a media circus going on,” Still said. “It kind of took away from the team and football. They did enough helping me deal with it the first year.”
Lewis was unavailable for comment on Thursday but addressed Still's release at the time, "For both Devon and the Bengals, we want to this year just focus on football and make sure everything was right for our football team."
Meanwhile, Still embraced the silver lining.
"I had the insurance to take care of my daughter without being away from her," Still said. "... One of the hardest things from last year was being away from her, so I was able to make up some of that time."
He worked out when he wasn't at the hospital, trying to stay in shape in case a team was interested. On Dec. 29, the Texans worked out Still. They told him that day that they wanted to sign him to a futures contract. They let him know about Houston's hospitals, which would offer world-class care for anything Leah needed.
Every team he worked out with asked about Leah, which Still appreciated. Still said he also worked out for the Colts, Titans, Jets and Broncos. He signed a futures contract with the Texans last week, days before Leah began her final treatment at the hospital. She has a regimen of pills that will last for a few more weeks, but the finish line is close.
Being a professional football player had been his dream since he started playing the game as a 13-year-old in Delaware. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament as a freshman at Penn State and redshirted. He broke his ankle the next year, which again delayed his dream.
Leah was born in May 2010.
"My junior year after I had my daughter is where I really had my motivation to make it to the league, to give her the best life possible," he said.
It showed. In 2011 Still was the Big Ten defensive player of the year and a consensus All-American. Texans coach Bill O'Brien became Penn State's coach after that season. Still now joins a Texans defensive front that includes two fellow Big Ten alumni in J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, both of whom had double-digit sacks in the 2015 season. Watt's 17.5 led the NFL.
"I think they have a dominant defensive line," Still said. "... Just being able to learn from them, have the type of production they had, especially this past year with those two guys, I think it’s going to be beneficial to get my career back on track and show everybody what I’m capable of doing."
He has no doubts about how he handled anything. Leah won her battle with cancer and he gets another chance to return to football.
Said Still: "If I would’ve lost my daughter because I was too focused on football, I could’ve never got her back."
Still firmly believes everything worked out exactly as he had hoped.