Last month, while roaming around Wegmans, I bumped into Bruce DeHaven. He always had a distinct bounce in his gait and walked with a slight hunch, so I knew it was him from a distance even though his back was turned. He slipped down an aisle before I called out his name to say hello.
DeHaven turned around, smiled and stuck out his hand. We embraced carefully, making sure we didn’t dislodge the port in his chest required for chemotherapy. His wife, Kathy, knew him all too well and the effect he had on people. She continued shopping, giving him time to speak with an old friend.
If you knew him, he had a way of tilting his head and laughing while he spoke. He maintained eye contact a little longer than most people, which told me he was more honest than most people. Whether he was speaking to players or shooting the breeze in a supermarket, he was always engaged.
It was a gift rooted in Kansas, a quality that made him an expert communicator in all aspects of life. He had a knack for making people feel like they were the most important person in a crowded room. There must be a million people out there who viewed him as a good friend on some level.
DeHaven, the former Bills special teams coach who died Tuesday, looked healthy and strong and was in good spirits during that conversation in November. We must have talked for 30 minutes, or 90 minutes less than I would have wanted. He spoke about how much he loved Buffalo, how much he adored the fans from the glory days and the people who befriended him away from the field.
He made a point to share his appreciation for the Carolina Panthers, who kept him involved by sending him game plans and asked for input on special teams while he underwent cancer treatment. He talked about his respect for Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who kept him on their payroll and insurance plan. He said other owners would have cut him loose.
DeHaven pulled out his phone and shared a video the Panthers sent him while boarding their charter for Los Angeles, wishing him well before they played the Rams. He laughed while trying to tell stories about tight end Greg Olsen, a source of entertainment on the plane and the funniest person DeHaven ever met.
We talked about mutual friends of FANA, an adoption agency that brought him two children and brought me a godson from Colombia. He became emotional when I asked about Kathy, whom he called a blessing before he was diagnosed and godsend afterward. We quickly changed the subject, preventing two men from crying in Wegmans.
We touched on the Bills, sharing disbelief and disgust. We glossed over former long snapper Adam Lingner’s precision, how Steve Christie understood the snowplow effects of the winds on the scoreboard side of the stadium, how Steve Tasker belonged in the Hall of Fame, how it wasn’t Scott Norwood’s fault.
He wanted me to tell Jerry Sullivan how much he respected him because he was critical and not in spite of being critical. He wanted me to know that he enjoyed the interaction with the media, how he loved talking about music with Chris “Bulldog” Parker at WGR Radio 550. He said so many things about so many people in so little time that I honestly can’t remember everything.
And we promised to keep in touch, as we had periodically over the years, before he returned for a second stint with the Bills. We shook hands and hugged again. He titled his head, smiled and maintained eye contact, an indelible expression forever saved to memory, until we walked our separate ways.
DeHaven has been hailed as a great coach and rightfully so, but everyone also should know that he was a wonderful human being. It was no surprise to hear people sharing the same opinion of him in Buffalo, Dallas, Carolina, Seattle, San Francisco and beyond.
He appeared younger than his years and carried himself with youthful exuberance for most of his 68 years. He looked so healthy and strong when we last spoke that I figured we had plenty of time to reunite in the months and years ahead. I planned to call him after football season to check on his progress.
After another long day of writing about the Bills on Tuesday, I checked my phone one last time before settling in for the night. Word spread quickly that he died, and it took my breath away. I sat up for hours thinking about him, thinking about how cancer took him much too soon, thinking about our last meeting.
The next day, I came to the conclusion that Bruce DeHaven knew he was dying during our final conversation. Maybe he didn’t want to admit as much and made a pact with himself to keep fighting. Or maybe he didn’t want to put me in an awkward position by telling me, which would have elicited a response he wanted to avoid.
I’m now convinced he was a step ahead, as usual. We jammed so many topics involving so many people into so little time because he wanted me to deliver a message. He wanted people to know how he felt about them, how he lived a full life, how he loved many friends from many places in many ways.
Allow me to pass along my prayers and condolences to his family while hoping they understand how much people appreciated them, too, for loaning him to everyone who crossed his path. They were players on his team, music lovers at concerts, fans in a football town, adoptive parents and an old friend at the grocery store.
I didn’t understand what he was telling me that day in November. Looking back, everything he said became clear.
Bruce DeHaven wasn’t saying hello.
He was saying goodbye.