One less week of conditioning, shorter time to learn the playbook, the feeling of being an outsider, the ego check of accepting that you weren’t in a team’s initial plans for the summer. For most players, entering training camp a week late is a discouraging, uphill battle destined for disappointment.
For Penn State graduate and New York Jets hopeful Devon Still, it’s just his latest challenge, if you even want to call it that.
“My main focus is just catching myself up to speed with everyone else because I’m behind the eight-ball,” he said Thursday afternoon after Jets’ practice. “Coming into camp late is a new experience but I’ve seen adversity before. During my career and especially with my daughter, I’ve had the odds against me a lot but I’ve learned how to overcome it.
“I’ll deal with it. It’s nothing new.”
Still’s confidence and composure does little to explain the last ten years of his life.
Before the Jets signed him a week ago, Still’s career was in jeopardy following a Lisfranc foot sprain that cut short a promising season with the Houston Texans during a game against the Tennessee Titans last October.
“It was really up in the air whether I was going to be able to recover from it, so getting cleared a few weeks ago and being signed to the Jets’ camp is a pretty amazing opportunity. I just need to make the most of it.”
That foot injury wasn’t the first time Still’s future on the gridiron was uncertain. It was the second career-threatening health scare of his NFL career and his third season-ending injury since signing with the Nittany Lions as a prized, yet brazen recruit out of Wilmington, DE. During each of his first two seasons at Penn State, Still failed to make it out of training camp, suffering a torn ACL and MCL and broken ankle in subsequent preseasons. While with the Bengals in 2014, Still nearly died from blood clots in his lungs following complications from a back surgery.
Those injuries were merely Still’s struggles to stay on the football field. The most towering adversity that he faced came two months after his near-fatal back surgery. In June of 2014, Still’s daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, a form of pediatric cancer that prevents nerve cells from developing to perform basic functions.
As the story goes, Still failed to make the Bengals’ 53-man roster that year because of both a hamstring injury and because of his inability to fully devote himself to football. The day after they cut Still, the Bengals courageously signed him to the practice squad so he could stay on the NFL’s thorough medical insurance coverage without having to travel with the team.
When Still says that he “just needs to deal with it,” he means it. It’s something that he done his whole life.
It’s how he defied the odds of growing up in the dangerous street of Wilmington to become the first person in his family to graduate college. And how he burst onto the scene of college football to become an All-American and the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, in addition to being the captain and emotional leader of the Nittany Lions during the program’s 2011 fallout. And most of all, how he managed to help his daughter “beat up” cancer. Leah has been in remission for two years now. She is enjoying her life as a seven-year old and going to cheerleading camp during the summer while school is out of session.
“When I was at Penn State, Joe [Paterno] was really big on us participating a lot in THON and that gave me a little bit of an understanding of what families go through with pediatric cancer,” Still said. “When it hit my daughter though, it was a totally different world because it’s different when it’s your child and you’re not just giving [them]tours around [the]Lasch [Building]. The amount of support the University, THON, and the team gave my family really helped us get through everything.”
On a lesser note, that mentality of “dealing with it” is also how Still has kept his NFL dreams alive, despite recurring injuries and Leah’s illness, which forced him to put his daughter first and sit out the 2015 season.
As fate will have it, on Saturday night, Still sees his first game action in almost a year, competing for a roster spot, the Jets will play the Titans, the team who Still went down against last season, not knowing when his next down of football would be. After beginning his professional career in Cincinnati and Houston, Still, who was born in Camden, will play close to home this season, for the first time since playing at Penn State. About a dozen of his family members will be at the game, supporting him.
All the hardships that Still has overcome in his short time in the limelight has given him a message. That time has also given him a platform.
Still has started a foundation, Still Strong, to support families fighting pediatric cancer and a company, Still In The Game, to coordinate his speaking engagements and embolden more and more people to attack setbacks with the same relentless persistence that Still rehabbed all of his injuries with, maintained his team’s camaraderie with when its legendary coach was removed and defamed, encouraged Leah with during their darkest hours, and on game day, blitzes quarterbacks with.
Unsurprisingly, many of Still’s messages come from his experiences on the football field, namely while at Penn State. Those formative years under Paterno laid the foundation for his career as an NFL player, advocate, motivational speaker, and People Magazine‘s 2016 Dad of the Year.
“Being a captain at Penn State during the Sandusky Scandal really helped me learn how to handle adversity,” he said. “I came into Penn State very immature with the mentality that I had while growing up in the city I came from, but Joe taught me how to be a man. The principles he taught us to take academics seriously, take being a man seriously, and then take football seriously are all lessons I’ve taken with me since then throughout my life and showed me how to face anything.”