HOUSTON (AP) — When Leah Still’s cancer entered remission, her attention turned to unfinished business — both for her and her dad.
For Leah, 6, that meant resuming the bicycle-riding lessons she started just before being diagnosed with late-stage neuroblastoma. The first post-remission session took place in Philadelphia, and it was challenging, even with training wheels. But Leah pushed through until she conquered it, just as she conquered the disease that threatened her life two years ago.
For her dad, Texans defensive end Devon Still, that meant football. It meant proving he could still play the game he put on hold so he could help nurse his daughter back to health.
“She’s very excited I’m back here on the football field,” Still said. “I want to dedicate this season to my daughter, and just go out here and play the type of football I know I can play.”
The Texans are giving him that chance. Between Leah’s diagnosis in June 2014 and her last treatment in January 2016, Still’s mind hadn’t really been with the game. He was a free agent throughout the 2015 season — completely out of football and training by himself. After that, the Texans signed him to a futures contract. Now he’s competing to be the team’s starting defensive end opposite J.J. Watt.
“Devon’s had a good couple of days here,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “He works very hard. Typical Penn State guy. Good football player, tough guy. Glad we have him.”
Still graduated from Penn State in 2011, the year before O’Brien’s first of two years as the Nittany Lions’ head coach. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Still in the second round of the 2012 draft but released him before the 2014 season, though they didn’t leave Still completely on his own. To ensure medical insurance through Leah’s treatments, they signed Still to the practice squad. In Week 2, Still was promoted to the team’s active roster.
His story and his daughter’s fight for her life inspired many.
The Bengals began selling his jersey and raised more than $1 million for pediatric cancer research. A year later, the Bengals were ready to focus solely on football. They released Still, who still retained his insurance according to the terms of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.
“It was hard, but I had bigger problems that I had to solve off the field with my daughter still battling cancer,” Still said.
Leah had her final treatment on Jan. 8, the same week the Texans signed her dad to a futures contract. The contract, though executed in January, became effective when the league year began on March 9.
“When he did play he was productive and he did his job well,” O’Brien said. “High character guy, obviously. Big guy, strong at the point of attack … we feel like we’ve got something we can really work with there.”
Last season, Jared Crick started opposite Watt on the Texans’ defensive line, with nose tackle Vince Wilfork between them. Crick became a free agent after the season and signed with the Denver Broncos.
Now Still is competing with Christian Covington, whom the Texans drafted in the sixth round in 2015, and Brandon Dunn, whom the Texans signed off the Bears practice squad during the 2015 season.
“Instincts,” Wilfork said, when asked what he notices about Still. “He’s got great instincts for being a defensive lineman. Being away from the game as long as he’s been, it’s very exciting to see a guy like that work the way he does.”
The person he wants to impress the most, though, might also be his biggest fan, Leah.
“To be able to come out here and play and not have the world on your shoulders, it’s easy to come out and play football,” Still said.
His normal life has resumed just like his daughter’s has.
NOTES: Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney did not practice Sunday. O’Brien said Clowney was getting a day off, and his absence was not due to injury. “Just trying to monitor how many reps they get,” O’Brien said of Clowney and running back Lamar Miller, who also missed practice. This is the first of his three training camps that Clowney has been completely healthy. He had groin surgery in June 2014, one month after the Texans drafted him first overall, then a concussion during training camp. A lateral meniscus tear he suffered in the first game of the 2014 season led to Clowney needing arthroscopic surgery in September and then microfracture surgery in December. He spent all of the 2015 offseason recovering and missed part of that year’s training camp, too. Last season, Clowney missed time with an ankle injury, a back injury and then suffered a midfoot, or Lisfranc, sprain that caused him to miss the Texans’ regular season finale and their 30-0 playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.