Summer 2024

Airing It Out: Surprisingly Good

“Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” I Thessalonians 5:15

Two stories that remind me that good still exists in today’s all-about-me and win-at-all-costs athletic culture come from a little-known college and one of the most unlikely NFL teams.

We’ll start with the little-known school, tiny Hiram College, located in Hiram, Ohio, and founded in 1850. The college, which has about 1,300 students, plays sports in NCAA Division III, the NCAA’s lowest level and a division that doesn’t offer athletic scholarships.

The Terriers’ women’s basketball team was the Nov. 2 opponent of Mount St. Joseph.

If that school sounds familiar, it’s because you may have heard the story about 19-year-old Mount St. Joseph freshman Lauren Hill, who has an inoperable and incurable form of brain cancer and who just wanted to play one college game before she died. I wrote about her in my last column.

Mount St. Joseph’s, also an NCAA Division III school, was supposed to play its first game in mid-November against Hiram College, but because school officials thought Lauren may not live that long or may not be in a condition that would allow her to play, they petitioned the NCAA to have the game moved to a date before the season was supposed to begin.

Hiram not only agreed to move the date of the game but also willingly gave up playing a home game so that Lauren could play in front of her home crowd—a crowd that swelled to 10,250 and saw the teams play at Xavier University because of the demand for tickets.

But there’s more to the story.

Though the focus was rightly on Lauren, her struggle with a rare form of brain cancer and her last wishes, another beautiful story was taking shape.

The night before the game, Mount St. Joseph’s women’s team took Hiram’s women’s team out to dinner and girls from each team loved on each other, understanding that this was about more than a basketball game—it was about the bigger picture of life, death and what really matters when people have the opportunity to show they care for others.

The following day, another amazing thing happened—the Hiram players were cheering for Lauren and crying after Lauren scored, and both teams even encouraged each other during the game; something unheard of in today’s college sports culture.

“At one point in the game, one of the girls, I shot a (3-pointer), and she’s like, ‘That’s a great shot. I’m glad you took it,’” Hiram senior Kelsey Koskinen, one of the team’s best players, told CBS Sunday Morning TV show correspondent Steve Hartman. “It’s like unreal.”

Hartman replied: “Should we be borrowing this, taking some of this, into the rest of the basketball season?”

Said Koskinen: “That’s how I feel. I just want to play games like that every time.”

Which caught my ear because, well, Hiram lost, 66-55, but all Koskinen could think about was how nice it was to play a game where both teams tried hard, and both teams encouraged each other to do their best. Winning wasn’t the main focus, although it was each team’s goal.

The other story involves two teams, as well. This one, though, comes from the most popular sport in America and involves two of the best teams in the NFL—the Cincinnati Bengals and the New England Patriots, the latter considered one of the bad-boy teams of the league.

The story involves a 4-year-old child, Leah Still, the daughter of Cincinnati defensive tackle Devon Still. Leah was diagnosed in June with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare form of pediatric cancer, and was given a 50 percent chance to live.

The story reveals the love and concern that Devon, the Bengals and the Patriots have toward Leah.

First, the Bengals cut Still in the summer so he could spend time with his daughter and then immediately re-resigned him to the practice squad so that he could keep his insurance.

On Oct. 5, during Cincinnati’s game at New England, the Patriots showed a video tribute to Leah to let people know about the situation. The video was also broadcasted locally on television and all over the U.S. (because the game was being broadcast nationally,)and also each of the New England cheerleaders wore Devon Still’s No. 75 Cincinnati Bengals jersey.

Yes, the same New England franchise that arguably is one of the most disliked NFL teams because of charges of unethical practices by coaches and off-field situations by players.

They honored an opposing player…and his daughter’s plight…at home.

A selfless act.

Later in October, the Cincinnati Bengals announced that their month-long fund-raising effort to donate proceeds from the sale of Devon Still’s No. 75 jersey to pediatric research had reached $1.25 million after selling nearly 15,000 of Still’s jerseys.

Another selfless act.

Fittingly, during all of this, Devon Still and Lauren Hill became friends, with Still giving Lauren one of his jerseys in October and wearing eye black during a game that read, “Lauren Strong”, and Hill giving Still her game-worn jersey from her first collegiate game, writing, “Forever Lauren & Leah Strong” then “Never Give Up!” and then signing her name and #22 on the right side of the gray jersey.

Two stories, separate, but intertwined because of cancer, love and selfless acts by individuals and opposing teams that understand there’s more to winning than what the scoreboard reveals at the end of the game.

By Brett Honeycutt

This column was published in Sports Spectrum’s Fall 2014 DigiMag #3. Log in HERE to view the issue or subscribe HERE to receive 12 issues of Sports Spectrum a year.