Leah Still planned to celebrate five years cancer free with a dinner at her favorite steakhouse.
The 10-year-old daughter of former NFL player Devon Still had to settle for a home-cooked meal when the coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans.
Shoutouts, though, lauding her recovery from entertainment and sports stars ranging from Kevin Hart to LeBron James were a pretty sweet reward for a girl who raised cancer awareness and funds during her own fight with the disease.
Leah Still was amazed James sent a video message telling the fifth grader, “I just want you to know that I’m still right there with you because you will always be one of my favorites.”
“I was really shocked and happy,” she said.
Still was 4 years old when she was diagnosed with a rare cancer that affects primarily infants and young children. She needed a stem-cell transplant, and her blood vessels and liver would become infected from chemotherapy treatments. The struggle took a toll on Leah and her family -- making the five-year milestone all the more meaningful for the girl that’s became the face of the #StillStrong campaign that led to a foundation that gives grants to families affected by childhood cancers.
She was to mark five years of her cancer being in remission with an annual fundraising gala for the foundation that also was canceled because of the pandemic. So was a golf outing fundraiser at Penn State, where Devon Still was team captain and earned all All-America honors before he enjoyed a brief NFL career. The pandemic crippled fundraising and also kept the 31-year-old Still from making volunteer trips to children’s hospitals.
“We’ve had to find creative ways online to try and raise money because these families need this money more now than they ever needed it before,” Still said. “We have to continue this fight against childhood cancer.”
Enter Dick Vermeil, who coached the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams, to try and pitch in and help the foundation.
Vermeil will host a virtual wine tasting event -- featuring his own Vermeil Wines -- in support of the Still Strong Foundation and the Rich Mauti Cancer Fund on Sept. 30. The Rich Mauti Cancer Fundis dedicated toraising money for cancer research, education and screenings, with all funds to be used in Louisiana. Mauti also played at Penn State.
The 83-year-old Vermeil, who lives in Chester County outside Philadelphia, has run a handful of virtual wine tastings during the pandemic and hoped the event could help the Still Strong Foundation reach its fundraising goal of $250,000.
Vermeil was a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Centennial class but failed to make it this year.
“At my age, you’re running out of time,” he said, laughing. “I think the bigger ego you have, the more upset you get. I’ve never thought I was the sole reason for winning. Players win games, not coaches. I’ve been surrounded by great people. I’m more or less the end product of all the accomplishments so many people around me. Without Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Orlando Pace, I’m not a Hall of Fame coach.”
His Vermeil Wines in Napa Valley produces 2,800 cases of wine each year and has more club members (98) in the Philadelphia area than anywhere else a testament to the wine, yes, but also Vermeil’s enduring popularity in Philadelphia. He led the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 1981 but they lost to the Oakland Raiders. Perhaps a second Super Bowl victory would have had him enshrined in Canton, Ohio years ago.
“I respect very much those who do get in,” he said. “I don’t go around saying I’m a better coach or why them and not me. If I get in, great. If I don’t, I go on living just like I was. I appreciate the fact that I was an NFL coach.”
The Stills and all those fighting childhood cancer appreciate that at least an online benefit could still be held to help kids suffering like Leah Still was -- and to shine a light on hope and inspiration she gives today.
“It’s going to benefit a lot of nice people and some young kids that are fighting the disease,” Vermeil said.