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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Debilitating health problems lead to two feel-good NFL stories

Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still walks on

Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still walks on the sidelines during an NFL preseason game against the Jets in Cincinnati. Credit: AP / Tony Tribble

You've been bombarded with negative news about the NFL these last two weeks. The league's crisis over domestic violence has cast a pall at a time we usually celebrate the start of the regular season.

But amid the relentless stream of devastatingly sad news, here are two heartwarming stories that reaffirm the good that can come from the people who are a part of this great game.

In Cincinnati, there is hope:

Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still was about to attend a dance recital for his 4-year-old daughter, Leah, in early June. She never made it after falling ill with a high fever. He took his daughter to the emergency room of the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. Hoping for a promising diagnosis, Still was shocked to learn that Leah had a cancerous tumor in her abdomen: Stage 4 neuroblastoma.

Doctors gave her a 50-50 chance of survival.

Still spent as much time as he could with his daughter, sharing her battle to stay alive and sharing his raw emotion on his Twitter account. Sharing thoughts that his true purpose in life had little to do with playing football and everything to do with being with his daughter.

Still, 25, a second-round pick out of Penn State in 2012, thought seriously about giving up his NFL dreams. But he needed the insurance to pay his daughter's medical bills, so he continued playing. Playing for Leah.

Still's situation soon would touch the hearts of Bengals fans, and then fans around the country, and now around the world. With the Bengals announcing a plan to raise money for cancer research by selling Still jerseys for $100 each, the promotion went viral.

Among those whose life it touched: Saints coach Sean Payton, who decided to purchase 100 of the jerseys on his own.

Sales of the jersey this past week surpassed $500,000.

Still got a chance to thank Payton when the two appeared on ESPN's Mike & Mike radio program.

"I just wanted to thank you for really stepping up to help support this cause," Still told Payton. "I'm pretty sure you know how many families and how many children you're helping out with this. And it's just showing the world how it's not all about how competitive you can be on the field, it's about what you can do to help out humanity. And I really appreciate you doing what you did."

Payton said Still "inspired a ton of people" with his story. He also credited Bengals owner Mike Brown and coach Marvin Lewis with supporting Still.

"It just really caught my attention the way they were handling it," Payton said. "And I think it will give other people strength, obviously in a difficult time. I'm a huge fan from afar, [though] I've never met you."

Payton will meet Still when the teams face one another Nov. 6 in Cincinnati in a nationally televised game.

"We play you down the road. Now, we can't have any sacks on [Drew] Brees," Payton quipped.

The latest news for Leah is promising: On Tuesday, doctors said chemotherapy had greatly reduced a side of her tumor. She is scheduled for surgery Thursday to have the tumor removed completely.

In Maryland, there also is hope:

Former Steelers guard Chris Kemoeatu won two Super Bowl rings in Pittsburgh, but not without significant pain, which ended his career with the Steelers after the 2011 season when he was 28 and ultimately required a kidney transplant last month.

The donor: his older brother, Ma'ake Kemoeatu, a former Ravens defensive tackle and also a Super Bowl winner.

The surgery, performed at the University of Maryland Medical Center, was a success. But preparing for it wasn't easy.

"First starting out, I didn't know how it was going to go because I'm scared of needles," Chris said. "So going into this was tough."

The journey was made easier because of his older brother.

"I've seen him struggle and the last three years of his career, fighting through a lot because of his kidney," Ma'ake said at a news conference at the hospital Wednesday. "When we found out he needed a transplant, we had to stop our careers because his health was most important to us."

Ma'ake did not hesitate to donate a kidney once he found out he was a match.

"The doctor said we could pass as twins to do this surgery," Ma'ake said. "My dad wanted to do it, and we kind of got into it because I didn't want him to do it. I'm the oldest of seven kids, so it was my responsibility to take care of my younger brothers and sisters. If my brother or any of my siblings needed blood, they have to have my blood. If any of my siblings needed a kidney, it would have to be my kidney."

Doctors say the two are doing fine and soon will be able to return home to Hawaii.

"We were raised in a tough atmosphere," Ma'ake said. "But after this, I think we say it."

Ma'ake turned to his brother and said, "I love you, man."

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