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Devon Still turned 25 years old July 11. The former Big Ten defensive player of the year enters his third season in the NFL with the Bengals in the midst of his prime. An opportunity sits wide open to compete for snaps in the middle of one of the league's best defensive lines.

However, two months ago, Still was convinced he was going to give it up.

On June 2, he found out his vibrant 4-year-old daughter, Leah, has stage 4 cancer. The disease, nueroblastoma, leaves her with a slightly better than 50 percent chance of survival.

His family, his career, his perspective, his world flipped upside down in an instant. Football suddenly faded as a priority.

"When I found out, I told my family I was done. Done. I didn't feel comfortable leaving my daughter while she's going through this," said Still, who lives in Philadelphia in the offseason. "She's fighting for her life. Sports is not more important than me being there while my daughter is fighting for her life."

Still sat in front of his locker Sunday morning and spoke in a controlled, honest, but emotional tone.

Less than two months removed from the news, he couldn't hide the constant sadness any more than the tears welling up in his eyes discussing the joy of placing a smile on his daughter's face.

Admittedly, his mind still spins into dark places.

"My head is messed up, to be honest with you," he said. "It's messed up. Sometimes I feel bi-polar. Sometimes I wake up and I'm optimistic. Sometimes I wake up and it's just heavy on me."

Still pushed through and got cleared to hit the field for the first time since his Jan. 9 back surgery on Saturday.

He eventually opted to re-join the team after missing a portion of OTAs because one of the top nueroblastoma surgeons in the country resides at Children's Hospital, so he and Leah's mother, Channing Smythe, agreed bringing Leah to Cincinnati would be the right move. Plus, Still could gather support of the Bengals through both tangible resources and comforting camaraderie.

He'll need all of it. The path won't become easier. Once she arrives Thursday, Leah will undergo two more rounds of chemo before a surgery attempt to remove the tumor in September.

"It's definitely a roller-coaster," Still said. "Being here playing football, being here with the guys, having a reason to laugh sometimes takes a lot of that sorrow off of me, or the depression, whatever you want to call it. Playing football helps out a lot."

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He enters training camp healthy in a season where pressure begins to mount for production. Each time Still took strides toward reflecting his second-round pick potential, an injury derailed him.

Whether his back or elbow, or a numbers game, he's played in just 18 games in two seasons with half a sack. His contract year approaches rapidly.

"It's a frustrating thing," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes, among the first to reach out to Still when news filtered back to Cincinnati this offseason. "This is a big year for him as a player. Then to have to go through all this with his family it's very difficult. The good Lord won't put more on you than you can handle but he's got a lot on his plate right now. We are praying for Leah and praying for Devon, trying to give all the prayers we can because that's all really we can do."

Every day since June 2 passed like a nightmarish blur. Still spent the first three weeks sleeping on a cot in a hospital room. Then a small break and another five days. Soon after, another week. Hardly ideal for a 310-pound athlete attempting to recover from back surgery.

"But I'm not worried about my back right now," he said. "I'm worried about my daughter's health."

At first losing her hair was the primary concern. Much like many 4-year-olds who adore princesses, a story about Rapunzel cutting her hair made the whole situation better.

Still went bald right with her and says he won't let it grow again until hers does.

Having the conversation to inform Leah of her ailment was about as tough as conversations get for anybody, much less a young father. But her resiliency inspires, her attitude repels any negativity. Holding that support in the fight is why he's here and why she will be soon.

"It allowed me to be able to continue to play football because I know I'll still be able to see my daughter and I know her seeing me continuing to play football will put a smile on her face," he said. "So I'm doing whatever I can do for her."

Actually, he's doing much more. Still started a campaign to raise money for research and funds to help families. Still's lucky to be under the NFL insurance plan, but constantly surrounded by those less fortunate undertaking the same gut-wrenching emotions while bills pile up.

At pldgit.com somebody can donate any amount of money for every sack the Bengals rack up this season.

"What made me do that is taking something negative and turning it into a positive," he said. "Seeing what families have to go through and they're in the same position I'm in where they can't afford something makes me want to bring more awareness, more research to this so nobody else has to go through it."

For now, though, Still goes through it. While some days are good and some days downright dastardly, he pushes on. A pink band will wrap his arm on game days, not that he needs another reminder of exactly why he plays every snap.

"She's still in high spirits; she kind of motivates us," Still said. "She's kind of our strength in this. As long as she fights hard we have no reason to complain. We go to the hospital and there are hundreds other kids with the same thing, so we try as much as possible not to whine about it because we understand we're not the only family going through it. We're just trying to hold it together as long as possible."

Dehner Jr. also writes for The Cincinnati Enquirer.

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