Still Strong

My daughter, Leah, loves to dance.

I don’t think you can name any of the dance moves she does — it’s mostly just whatever comes to her mind at that moment. But it always makes me laugh. She’s so serious when she’s dancing because she doesn’t care how silly it looks. I smile just thinking about it.

A lot of people know about my daughter’s illness, but I want you to know who she really is. Her favorite thing in this world is Disney — she loves Disney princesses, she loves Disney World, she loves the Disney Channel. She’s always wearing headbands. Her favorite color is pink and she doesn’t like sneakers because she thinks they’re for boys. She’s also a jokester. Like, she really cracks you up every day. Whenever she walks into a room, she captures everybody’s heart with her personality.

Leah’s just a normal kid who had a terrible thing happen to her. But how she’s handled that terrible thing has been truly amazing.

While she was getting cancer treatment this year, there wasn’t much to smile about. I’d spend a lot of time watching my baby hooked up to machines and wires with no way of helping her. I’d always worry about putting on a strong face so she wouldn’t be scared. But then a Kids Bop commercial would come on the Disney Channel, and suddenly up she’d be doing her very best dancing. It didn’t matter whether she was feeling bad or if she had no energy, she’d start dancing around with that focused look on her face, and I’d be reminded of how unbelievably strong she is. Even when everyone around her felt shattered, Leah has always kept a positive attitude.

It’s been a little more than a year since I was sitting in the emergency room with my family, waiting to find out what was going on with my daughter. We brought Leah in because she was feeling stomach pain and they took her to get a CAT scan. I’d gotten a few CAT scans during my career, so I knew they took about 45 minutes to complete. When we hit around the two-hour mark of her still getting the test, I kind of understood that something was probably very wrong. When the doctor came out, he told us that they had found a tumor in her stomach.

Eventually we were told that she had Stage 4 neuroblastoma, and a little more than a 50 percent chance of surviving.

Early on, the hardest thing was just meeting with the doctors and talking about the treatment. Going from a background where I knew nothing about cancer to suddenly entering a world where doctors are talking to me in what seems like a foreign language was so incredibly frustrating. I’m a strong man, but I felt like there was nothing I could do to protect my daughter. I became obsessive about researching the disease so I could feel more educated about the decisions being made.

Having a child sick is truly every parent’s worst nightmare, but through this experience, I’ve seen firsthand how many truly good people there are in this world.

Since the time Leah was diagnosed, I’ve felt a pain worse than anything that can be inflicted on a football field. But I’ve also felt so much joy that I’ve been moved to tears. Leah is an incredibly special child, and I’m extremely moved by how many people took an interest in her story and wanted to make a difference. The way that the entire nation lifted her and my family up when we needed it most is nothing short of a miracle.

Leah and I receiving The Jimmy V Perseverance award is an incredible honor, but it also doesn’t feel like one that belongs entirely to us.

As Leah completes her steps towards recovery, it only feels right to recognize everyone who made sure we never felt alone during this journey.

My family is closer than they’ve ever been because of this experience. Our relatives have been there to support us every step of the way, and I’ll never forget the sacrifices they’ve made to help us make it through this year.

As soon as my daughter got diagnosed, I called the Bengals and told them what I was going through, and they told me to just focus on what I needed to do. This past year, I’ve never thought about football, and that’s a decision the Bengals supported. The team signed me to their practice squad this past season so that Leah’s treatment would be fully covered, and this lifted such a huge weight off of me. As a professional athlete, you’re conditioned to think of this as a business, but the way the Bengals stepped up when I needed help is something bigger than football.

When people first started reaching out to me to talk about Leah’s story, it was hard because I didn’t know how to handle the situation. In most of my early interviews, it was difficult for me not to break down and cry every time I spoke about it. But as time went on and as I got used to being in front of the camera, I began to fully realize just how important it was to talk about this. Not only was it therapeutic to get all of those feelings off my chest, but I discovered they had a bigger purpose.

Backup defensive tackles usually aren’t accustomed to seeing their jerseys worn at games, but thousands of fans purchased my jersey to help us raise roughly $1.5 million in support of pediatric research. Every single one of those No. 75 jerseys I would see in the crowd warmed my heart.

The awareness that the fans have helped spread this past year has already made an impact.

I met a fan in Cincinnati this past year who had followed my story and took her daughter to the hospital because she was showing symptoms similar to the ones I’d described Leah having. As it turned out, that woman’s daughter was diagnosed with the same type of cancer as Leah. The woman was incredibly thankful because had she not heard Leah’s story, she wouldn’t have taken her daughter to the hospital in time to give her a chance of beating this disease.

Stories like that are why winning this award really means so much. Our work is just beginning, and I’m hopeful that this honor will make a difference in the lives of others, whether it’s through support of research or raising more awareness.