By Cynthia Zordich, Player Engagement Insider
June 2, 2014. "When I look back on it now - it was like a tornado destroying everything in its path," shares NFL defensive tackle, Devon Still, reflecting on daughter, Leah's, 2014 neuroblastoma diagnosis, a rare form of pediatric cancer.
On March 25, 2017 Leah celebrated her second year of being cancer-free and she did it in Leah style - by hosting a gala to help other kids and their families still in the midst of cancer's storm.
Touched by the outpouring of love and support for Leah, attuned to the emotional and financial burden parents of children with cancer face every day, and aware of the impact he and Leah could make between his NFL platform and her fierce personality, Devon Still founded the Still Strong Foundation in 2015.
"Leah and I created the Still Strong Foundation to give grants to families affected by childhood cancers. We want them to spend less time worrying about non-medical bills, like mortgages and utilities, and more time supporting their child to a victorious fight against cancer. We want to bring joy to children battling cancer and to support their parents who are facing financial hardships. We also want to positively impact the cancer community," says the Still Strong mission statement.
The first For Our Children Gala kicked off in Philadelphia - the timing coinciding perfectly with Leah's second year, cancer-free anniversary. Seeing Leah twirl and spin as she welcomed each guest speaker and honoree to the stage offered the promise of happy endings for all children battling pediatric cancer.
With an endearing welcome by Devon and Leah, the gala - hosted by WIP radio personality Marc Farzetta, served as a platform to honor local and national heroes who impact the lives of others through action and contribution.
Farzetta kicked off the awards ceremony with the Corporate Responsibility Award presented to Chris McElwee. McElwee is the owner of Fastrack Construction and founder of Michael's Way, a Philadelphia-based charity that has distributed more than six million dollars to lessen the financial hardships of Philadelphia families whose children are battling cancer.
"To see what Devon and Leah went through and for them to win the fight and not forget the people who helped them is very encouraging and very important for others to see," McElwee said. "It is always great to see how many people are doing so many great things in trying to help others."
Young Lukas Kusters, who is in the midst of his own battle, summoned strength and courage to present McElwee with his award. Reflecting on the moment, Farzetta said, "To see Lukas walk to the stage to help honor Chris McElwee. Lukas, in a frail state from battling cancer, walking to the stage carrying a framed picture for Mr. McElwee; You could tell he was struggling to carry it, but he did, from his seat to the podium. All to say thank you. It was very moving."
James Connor, the University of Pittsburgh running back, a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor, was awarded the Still Strong Award which honors individuals who give back to the cancer community through their efforts and inspiration. Diagnosed after a k
nee injury in 2015, Connors returned to the field as team captain just four months after his final chemotherapy treatment and finished the 2016 season with over 1000 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Connor was selected in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Both parents of Lukas stood together on the stage as his mother, Rebecca, recounted their journey. Lukas is nine and has been tackling rhabdomyosarcoma since his 2016 diagnosis. Lukas is a tough boy who loves to play tough football - earning the nickname The Dutch Destroyer. With a strong support system and added support from The Still Strong Foundation and Michael's Way, the Kusters are able to focus on their son and his complete care. Each day Lukas gets stronger and is an inspiration to all who cross his path.
A silent auction featuring over 200 pieces of signature sports memorabilia from all major leagues and universities, plus a live auction featuring a WWE Live Event, an Ultimate Top Gun Experience, and a vacation with Barbie that includes a behind-the -scenes tour of the Mattel Design Center in the company of Leah (an extreme Barbie fan) and Devon, was testament to the outpouring of love and support that continues for Leah and the efforts of Still Strong Foundation.
Perhaps Mattel will see first-hand the strength, personality and spunk of the "selfie-queen" and be inspired to manufacturer a Leah Strong Barbie Action Figure? Certainly, there is something extraordinary about this dynamic little fighter.
I had the opportunity to sit with Devon to talk about Leah and her strength of 10, to reflect on their journey now that the waters are still, and to share the secret of raising a champion.
Q1. How did you decide to take on Leah's battle with the fun and fighting attitude that you did? For instance, the ride in the car on the way to treatment. Did that come from you or because of the kind of little girl she is?
D.S. A lot of things I do in life are related to football because to me - there is no difference. That day in the car, my daughter was down and I knew I needed to give her a pep talk to get her spirits up. We just tried to find the small victories in everything - so that the end goal of her getting to remission didn't seem so hard.
Q2. Do you teach a child to fight or is it already in the child?
D.S. Everyone has a fighter deep down inside them. It either takes them to realize that on their own or for someone to bring that out of them
Q3. Why is it important to continue fighting for others when your battle is complete?
D.S. I'm a believer in starting what you finish. We went into this wanting to help end cancer and we won't stop until it's over. Too many families are depending on us.
Q4. Does Leah enjoy your philanthropic efforts?
D.S. Yes. It's amazing - that at such a young age - she understands what we are trying to do and she wants to be heavily involved.
Q5. How does your wife Asha help you emotionally in your journey with Leah and your cause to fight pediatric cancer?
D.S. She was, and is always, there to keep me motivated during times when things just seemed impossible.
Q6. Do you have days were you still break down?
D.S. Sometimes I can't look at old pictures of Leah during her fight because it pains me to see what she had to go through.
Q7. What is your message to parents who first hear of their child's diagnosis?
D.S. It's not over. No matter if the odds are against you, you still have a chance to win, you're still in the game.
Q8. What is Leah's message to children who first hear of their own diagnosis?
D.S. Never give up and always stay strong. The pain is only temporary
Q9. Share your continued efforts in impacting others with your experience?
D.S. I started a company called Still In The Game (game meaning life) where I travel the world speaking to businesses and foundations to spread the message that no matter what you are going through, as long as you are still alive - you are still in the game. There's still time left to do and live the life you want.
For more information about or to contribute to the Still Strong Foundation please visit www.stillstrongfoundation.org. For more information about Still In The Game or to schedule a Devon Still appearance please contact Bari Wolfman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cynthia Zordich is the co-author of When The Clock Runs Out and founder of nflthread.net. She is the Wife of Former NFL Safety/current UM DB Coach, Michael Zordich and the Mother of Former Fullback Michael Zordich (Carolina Panthers), Former D-1 QB Alex Zordich and Daughter Aidan Zordich (Assistant, Funny or Die).