Dad is #LeahStrong. Five-year-old Leah Still couldn't accept the Jimmy V. Perseverance Award at the 2015 ESPYS in L.A. on Wednesday, July 15, so her dad, Cincinnati Bengal Devon Still, courageously stood in his little girl's place.
Leah was diagnosed with cancer in June 2014, and her story has inspired countless football fans around the world. She went into remission this past March, and returned home from the hospital late last month after a her initial 50-day stay was lengthened due to complications from her medicine. The family hoped that Leah would be able to attend the event on Wednesday to personally receive the honor, but doctors advised against it.
LeBron James' introduction of Still was followed by an emotional video detailing Leah's arduous journey. "She's the toughest person I've ever met and she has the mindset that nothing will hold her down," the football pro said of his daughter in the clip.
When he took to the stage, Still was greeted by a standing ovation from his peers. "I would beg [God] to give me the fight with death rather than my daughter," he told the crowd, saying he was lucky to have experienced so much throughout his life."
"At the age of 4, my daughter hadn't even began to understand what life was all about," he continued of Leah's diagnosis. "I remember one night in the hospital, she just started putting things in her stomach and putting it in mine. She said, 'Dad, I'm taking the cancer from me and giving it all to you.' I started breaking down right there."
The Bengals player said he turned to alcohol to escape, but realized that his daughter had no escape from her illness. It was then that he reevaluated how everything was supposed to be approached. "We could've lost faith and let this cancer get the best of us," he told the crowd. "Or we could use this as a platform to raise awareness."
While Leah couldn't join her father on Wednesday to accept her award, she left a sweet message at the end of his speech. "Sorry I couldn't be there, everybody, but thank you for supporting me while I beat up cancer," the little one said in a video clip.
As part of their mission together, the father-daughter duo recently published a book titled, I Am Leah Strong. The story details the little one's struggle with cancer. "My baby is really into reading books, and we had a lot of time in the hospital when we had a lot of free time," the football star told Vice in an interview published July 15. "So we thought if we wrote a book that could be a handbook for other families… When our daughter was diagnosed we didn't have a handbook, we thought we'd take our family's experience and share it with others."
He said receiving the ESPY was just one component of what he and his daughter have been trying to achieve together. "Not the award itself," Still told Vice. "I don't think anybody wants to be in this position. I don't think anyone grows up wanting to win the Jimmy V award, you have to go through a lot of hardship to get there."
The Jimmy V. Perseverance Award was named after beloved NC State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who battled cancer and delivered the famous phrase, "Don't give up, don't ever give up," during his 1993 speech. Last year's recipient was late ESPN SportsCenter broadcaster Stuart Scott, who passed away this year.
Like her predecessors, the precocious youngster, known to the masses as Leah Strong, has a mission to change and inspire the world. "I think she has an idea," her father told Vice. "I think she has an idea of the impact she's making on the world and the recognition she's getting. She has people talking to her all the time, going out in public like that with everyone wanting to take a picture with her. I think in that sense she understands. But as she gets older, she'll start to understand the impact that she's made."
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