Q&A: Devon Still on Playing In the NFL & Helping Families

Devon Still was a standout defensive end for Penn State from 2008-11 and was named 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. The Camden, New Jersey, native was selected by the Bengals in the second round (53rd overall) of the 2012 NFL Draft, and two years later his oldest daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma cancer. 

Still finished his career with the Titans, but cut short his NFL tenure to devote more time to his family and helping others. He and his wife, Asha, are spokespeople for Clearblue’s Conceivinghood program, which supports couples with fertility issues and provides them a community to discuss their experiences. The couple also has their REALationship Podcast and runs the well-known Still Strong Foundation for the fight against childhood cancer.

Sports Section sat down with the 31-year-old to talk about balancing family and sports, using his platform to help others, and his career on the field one week out from the 2021 NFL Draft (April 29-May 1).

Your older daughter, Leah, is in remission from Stage 4 neuroblastoma. How did that impact your life before and after your football career ended?

It was a crazy journey. Leah got diagnosed in 2014 with Stage 4 neuroblastoma (a nerve tissue cancer). We decided to go public with that journey to shed light on what it’s like for a family that is battling childhood cancer.

This past March, she turned six years cancer-free, so we’re just enjoying life. We have our family together. We don’t take any moments for granted. Although Leah’s fight is over, we haven’t stopped our fight against childhood cancer. We run our Still Strong Foundation to financially support families battling cancer.

We started this to help other people, but we found that they help us because they give us a sense of purpose. When you put a lot of your value into what you’re able to accomplish on the football field, it’s hard to walk away and find your purpose — but when you see how many people you’re impacting to help overcome struggles, it gives you a light to some of your darkness that you’re going through in your life.

What were your emotions when you walked away from the NFL to care for Leah?

I’m OK with it because before I got drafted, I remember watching an interview between Oprah and Dave Chappelle — and this is when he walked away from his $50 million deal [with Comedy Central] — and she told him, “If you don’t know who you are before the money and fame comes then you’ll never know who you are.”

So before I got drafted I made sure I wrote down what I valued as a man, and one of my top ones was my family. So when she got diagnosed, it was a no-brainer that she came before football. I always knew if I lost football, I could get it back with the right opportunity. But if I lost my daughter I would never be able to get that time back with her. So it was an easy decision for me, and it did have a big impact on my NFL career, but I’m OK with that because my daughter is six years cancer-free, and I still have my family. 

What was the decision like to share your story?

I didn’t go public with our family’s story for sympathy. I did it because there were a lot of families who were suffering in the hospital before us, and there were families suffering in the hospital with us that did not have a voice.

I knew as an NFL player I would be able to give childhood cancer that platform. When the NFL really rallied behind me and supported me, it helped amplify that message. We were able to raise over $1.4 million for research. The way that the NFL stepped up was truly special and I felt blessed to be a part of that movement. 

Why has Clearblue’s Conceivinghood program been so important to you and your family?

A lot of times we put the focus on motherhood, fatherhood, and parenthood, but rarely do we talk about Conceivinghood, which is the process in order to get you to parenthood. About three years ago, we started our TTC (trying to conceive) journey. It was negative test after negative test. We decided to go public and use our social media platform to talk about our struggles. When Clearblue found out about it, they reached out to us and they offered to be a resource.

They sent us over ovulation test systems, which allowed us to track Asha’s fertility and tell us the peak moments when we can try to conceive. The first time after tracking it, we had our first positive pregnancy test, and now we have a beautiful 2-year-old daughter, Aria.

We decided to try to expand our family even more last year and have our quarantine baby like a lot of people, and again we used the ovulation test system. It worked, we got a positive pregnancy test right away. But we found out Asha was having an embryotic pregnancy, which means that we were going to experience a miscarriage. We talk about the struggle that we were going through on our podcast.

We think it’s important to allow people a safe space to talk about this so that people don’t suffer in silence. A lot of responsibility comes with our platform. When people have these huge platforms or they’re always in the public eye, they put a lot of focus on themselves. But we realize the responsibility of this to touch on these topics and bring some source of light to people’s darkness. 

You really have two legacies, one as a football player and one dedicated to helping others…

I’m definitely proud of my accomplishments and what I was able to accomplish on the football field because I came from an environment where I didn’t see anybody make it to the NFL before. Sometimes it’s hard to have a dream when you’ve never seen anybody do it before. 

So even though I didn’t have the impact in the NFL that I wanted, the fact that I made it there will allow the kids who came up after me to be inspired to do better. I only can take the baton as far as I can take it and then I can hand it off to the younger generation.

Right now, what I’m trying to do is put the focus back on family and allow people to understand how important it is to be just as successful off the field as it was to be on the field.

You were a standout defensive end at Penn State. What’s your favorite college memory? 

It would be the second game in my senior season against Alabama. I remember the year before we went down to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama, and I was about to sack the quarterback and [running back] Trent Richardson just came out of nowhere and leveled me. I flipped up in the air and landed on my neck. I told myself if I had a chance to get them back, I would. And when we played them the following year at Beaver Stadium, I remember just breaking through the line and I laid a big hit on Trent in the backfield. 

And that really sparked my team. Of course, we lost that game, but the way that we were able to rally from where we were the previous years was something I will never forget.

What are your memories leading into the draft, and what would you tell current prospects?

There was a lot of anxiety, a lot of excitement, because I was a few days away from my dreams possibly coming true of making it to the NFL. And I had to overcome a lot of adversity in order to get to that moment.

I thought of all the injuries that I fought through in college, all the nights that I cried in my dorm room, all the months and the blood, sweat, and tears that I spent inside the rehab room. Bouncing back from ACL, MCL tears, broken legs, a torn rotator cuff. It was all worth it to fight through those dark times because my dream came true.

So I encourage a lot of players to just enjoy it. You may not hear your name called when you thought it was going to be called, but don’t allow the anxiety to steal away from that experience. You only get one time to experience this — and it’s an exciting moment, not only for you, but for your family as well.

What do you expect to happen this year?

I think that we’re going to see a lot more offensive tackles being taken early on, because this is a quarterback-heavy draft. You’re going to have four quarterbacks drafted in the Top 10 so you’re going to have to be able to draft some good offensive linemen in order to protect those quarterbacks. 

What do you think your former team the Bengals will do at No. 5?

I think they’re going to draft an offensive tackle. They have to find a way to protect their franchise quarterback (Joe Burrow). He suffered a pretty big injury last year (torn ACL/MCL), and he’s been putting in the work to bounce back. Now they have to find the right pieces to protect him.

What do you expect from the Bengals this season?

It’s going to be interesting. I think it really just relies on how Joe bounces back from the injury. If he comes back and he’s the same caliber quarterback or even better, I think the team is going to rally around him because they saw how he was able to overcome adversity and that’s going to spread to the rest of the team.

Chris Kuc is a sportswriter who covered a myriad of sports during his career with the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic and the Chicago Blackhawks before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris at Chris.Kuc@thesportssection.com or on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.