Schools are closed. Sports are cancelled. But former NFL defensive end Devon Still has some words of wisdom for young athletes coping with life in the new normal.   

Last week, during an hour-long Zoom call with True Lacrosse, one of the largest and most successful club lacrosse programs in the nation, Still shared his keys to success: know your goal, accept failure but never accept defeat, do the things you don’t like doing so one day you can do the things you love doing, to name a few. Throughout the call, he shared his own inspiring story, from overcoming a broken home and multiple injuries to becoming an All American, both in high school and at Penn State, and, eventually, joining only 1% of college football players who go on to play for the NFL.  

But it’s what Still has done off the field that’s even more impressive. After his daughter Leah was diagnosed with stage-four cancer in 2014, Still left his football career behind to focus full-time on her recovery. Last month, Leah was officially pronounced cancer-free.  

“A lot of times, I wanted to give up,” Still told the more than 300 lacrosse players who joined the call last week. “But when I went public with my story, I wanted to give voice to the voiceless. I wanted people to see what it’s like for kids fighting cancer, to use my platform to show the world. It gave me a purpose—a why—and my purpose became stronger than the pain.”

In the years since leaving pro football, Still has transformed into a motivational speaker and resiliency expert

 and recently launched Playmaker University, an interactive video-based training program, which includes weekly courses, live coaching and access to a community.

Still acknowledged that it’s tough for young athletes who are stuck at home and unable to practice with their teams. But he said that lockdown isn’t an excuse to slack off.  

“When’s the last time you did something on Zoom—workout or watch film—or are you waiting for the coach to tell you? Still asked the lacrosse players. “Average effort gets you average results. If you want a phenomenal life, you have to have phenomenal will.”

From school to friendships to life goals, the discussion touched on subjects that many teenagers struggle with—finding a group of friends who will be a positive influence, avoiding the temptation of drugs and alcohol, putting in the work even when you don’t want to, recognizing the sacrifices others have made on your behalf.

Like the rest of us, Still isn’t immune to mistakes. He shared some of his missteps, like not taking academics seriously enough or smoking marijuana at a concert while in college and failing a drug test the next day. Fortunately, his mistakes weren’t fatal because he learned from them. After leaving the NFL, Still enrolled in graduate school and recently earned a master’s degree. After failing the drug test, he recommitted to his goals, vowing not to throw away all his hard work or disappoint his family and coaches, who had invested so much in him.  

He stressed the importance of failure—“if you always achieve the goals you set, you’re not setting big enough goals”—and understanding the difference between goals and values.

“I look at the endzones as my goals and the sidelines as my values,” Still said. “There are things I’m not willing to do to reach my goals. One of the main reasons I played football is to provide a better life for my family. I value family more than football and putting football on hold when Leah was battling cancer was the best decision I ever made because Leah is here with me today.”