ESPN Steamrolls a Real Profile in Courage

Bob Costas is getting heat for daring to suggest that giving Caitlyn Jenner the ESPN Arthur Ashe award is preposterous.

He’s right, of course. And not just because giving the award to Jenner is a publicity stunt, but because there was an obvious choice for 2015: Leah and Devon Still, whose story goes like this:

Devon Still was born in Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden towns in America. A giant of a man—he’s 6’5” and 305 lbs.—he got a scholarship to play football at a private school in Delaware and then a scholarship to Penn State, where he was one of the best defensive players in the country. He actually graduated, and was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. That’s a pretty amazing life for a kid from Camden. Still was living the dream.

Then, in June of 2014, his 4-year-old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma. The disease has a 50 percent survival rate.

Devon wasn’t a star player and he didn’t aggressively publicize his daughter’s illness, but people in the Bengals organization found out about it and wanted to help. The team announced that it would donate a big chunk of any sales from Devon’s jersey to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Improbably, fans bought more than 15,000 Still jerseys and people around the league gave money and showed support for Leah.

When the Bengals traveled to Boston, the Patriots paid tribute to Leah with a presentation before the game. The Pats’ cheerleaders wore Still’s jersey. The crowd at Foxboro—not the most genteel fans in America—gave the Stills a huge ovation. Leah wasn’t there, of course, because she was home going through treatment.

One of the highlights of the NFL season was when Leah was able to see her dad play for the first time after finishing chemotherapy. She came to the Browns-Bengals game as a special guest and when the tiny, bald, beautiful 4-year-old girl made her way onto the field wearing a surgical mask, the crowd exploded as if the Bengals had won the Super Bowl. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the Bengals and Leah presented Cincinnati Children’s with a check for $1.3 million, raised from sales of Still’s jersey, and other donations, to be used for cancer research.

Leah continued the fight and in September underwent surgery to remove the tumor. In March she was declared cancer-free, but she and Devon kept fundraising, and recently donated $141,000 to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Devon is working on setting up a foundation to help families stricken with pediatric neuroblastoma.

The Stills aren’t being shut out of the ESPY’s—ESPN is giving Leah the Jimmy Valvano Perseverance Award, which is basically the designated cancer trophy. But what she and her father did goes far beyond perseverance.

If you want an iconic picture of courage, put the Caitlyn Jenner come-hither Vanity Fair cover next to the photo of Devon Still crying on the field at Foxboro as he realizes that thousands of people he’s never met are pulling for his daughter.

Leah and Devon Still beat a medical death sentence and raised almost a million and a half dollars for cancer research. Caitlyn Jenner spent thousands of dollars on breast implants and got a reality show. You tell me who’s more courageous.

When you put those two images side-by-side, giving the Arthur Ashe award to Jenner isn’t just preposterous. It’s insulting.

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