SAN FRANCISCO – He waited 22 years to get back to this point. But in some ways, Bruce DeHaven was dreading the experience. He knew there would be questions about his fight with cancer, and DeHaven, the special teams coordinator of the Carolina Panthers, wanted no part of it.
“For me, it’s not a nonstory,” DeHaven said with a laugh. “But that’s not the story here. The story is these guys and everything they’ve done. My story detracts from what they’re doing.”
DeHaven has handled it that way since May, when he learned he was suffering from an advanced case of prostate cancer and had three to five years to live. He was determined to go about his business in the same manner he had for three decades in the NFL, with the selfless joy and determination of a coaching lifer.
“You would never know he was an ill man,” said A.J. Klein, the Panthers’ linebacker and core special teams man. “He just wants to be a coach.”
That’s all DeHaven has ever wanted. That’s his story. Health issues aside, he’s a great Super Bowl story, a man with deep emotional ties to Buffalo, the place he still makes his home and where he enjoyed his finest moments as an NFL coach.
One reason he didn’t want to dwell on his cancer was that he didn’t want his children reading about his illness. His son, Toby Scott (after Scott Norwood), is a freshman at Canisius College. Daughter Annie Maude is a sophomore at Orchard Park High School.
DeHaven, 67, went to four Super Bowls as the Bills’ special teams coach. He’s a connection to some of the most stirring wins and crushing defeats in franchise history.
He stood there by Norwood when the kicker fielded questions for 45 minutes after his field-goal attempt sailed wide right at the end of Super Bowl XXV. The next day, he walked with Norwood onto a stage outside City Hall, where thousands of Buffalo fans were chanting the kicker’s name.
DeHaven is still moved to tears by those memories. He spoke eloquently in the recent ESPN documentary, “Four Falls of Buffalo.” Today, he will coach in a fifth Super Bowl, hoping to finally win one in what will likely be his final year in coaching.
“It’s hard for me to talk to anybody about that and not get really emotional,” he said. “I thought they did a great job with it, I really did. It even made me feel a little bit different about the four Super Bowls.
“I’ve told my guys, ‘Listen, it’s great to go to the Super Bowl. But if you lose, it’s not the same feeling.’ Even if you had a good time when you were out there, there’s such a big difference between winning and losing.”
The losses stick with you, some longer than others. It’s no small irony that DeHaven’s return to the Super Bowl intersects with that of Wade Phillips, his former head coach with the Bills. Phillips, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator, hasn’t coached in the Bowl in 26 years.
Their coaching destinies were forever altered by one fateful play, the lateraled kickoff return that snatched a playoff win from the Bills in the Music City Miracle of January 2000. DeHaven was fired two days later.
Ralph Wilson and Phillips made him the scapegoat. DeHaven still calls it the worst thing that ever happened to him, outside a death in the family. But he finally put it behind him.
“Any problems I had with Wade, I got over,” DeHaven said. “It took me almost 10 years, but I talked to him before a ballgame in Houston a couple of years ago. We ended up embracing. I don’t think he had a problem with me, but I had a problem with him. I think he was happy I reached out to him.
“That’s just the way the business is. I’m now older enough and experienced enough to understand that.”
It’s good to know that DeHaven made peace with Phillips, who told me this week that he was proud of DeHaven. Bruce is one of the truly good guys in the game. Of all the coaches who have gone through Buffalo, he’s my favorite, someone I came to consider a friend.
One day in 1989, at the height of the Bickering Bills, I wrote a scathing column in which I questioned the team’s leadership and mentioned half a dozen players by name. When I went in the locker room the next day, several players threatened me.
Walking out the hallway leading to the tunnel, I ran across DeHaven, who called me aside. “Oh no, not him too,” I thought. He told me that column was right on the money. To a young writer under fire in his first year in town, that meant the world. Bruce smiled when I reminded him. He hasn’t forgotten.
Over the years, we bonded over our love for music. My late friend, Jay Bonfatti, covered the Bills for the Associated Press in those days. Jay would tip me off to good bands and I would find out later that he’d been turned on to them by DeHaven. Bruce was telling me about Wilco long before they became an alt rock sensation.
“I tell people I coach football to pay the bills and I love music,” DeHaven said. “I’ve got tickets later this spring when Dave Alvin’s coming back to the Sportsmen’s Tavern. I saw him and his brother there last year when I was home. Love those guys at Sportsmen’s. They have such great bands there.”
DeHaven got his love of music from his mother as a kid growing up on a farm in southwest Kansas. His mother gave him a brass baritone in third grade and he sang in the high school chorus. She also gave him piano lessons when he was young.
“That didn’t last long, because I’d rather be out shooting baskets,” said DeHaven, who played small-college hoops. “But music is in my blood. Nothing I can do about it. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and there’ll be a song in my head. There’s hardly ever a time there’s not some kind of melody going off in my head.”
Coaching got into his blood and stayed. DeHaven remembers coaching in Wichita and winning the Kansas state title 40 years ago. On the bus ride home, he felt sad that the season was over. It’s teaching young people, going through the process, that he loved best.
He is proud to say he hasn’t missed one NFL paycheck since Marv Levy brought him to Buffalo in 1987. He wasn’t out of work long when the Bills fired him in 2000. He went to the Niners, Cowboys and Seahawks, back to the Bills for three years, then on to Carolina after Chan Gailey’s staff was let go.
DeHaven was six months from retirement age when Ron Rivera hired him in 2013. He figured he would work one year, then call it quits. “We got pretty good and kept winning and he gave me a chance to be a coordinator again this year,” he said.
Then, during a routine physical exam last May, doctors found the prostate cancer. Over the next week or so, DeHaven learned it had spread. He got the three- to five-year prognosis and wondered if he would be forced to stop coaching.
“Initially, when I talked to the doctors in Charlotte, I thought I was going to have eight weeks of chemotherapy,” he said. “If I went that stage, I couldn’t be by myself down in Charlotte. I would need to get home to my family. Everything was a little bit unclear there for awhile.
“Thank God for Roswell Park and my doctor; he’s my favorite person in the world right now. Dr. Ellis Levine.”
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson told DeHaven, “Whatever it takes, you’ve got it.” It was a tremendous relief to know he had the team’s full support. He was able to commute monthly to Buffalo for hormone treatments to treat the disease.
Otherwise, it’s been a fairly normal year, with DeHaven pushing to get the most out of Carolina special teams that have been below average the last two seasons. He can only pine for those Super Bowl days, when he had Steve Tasker and Mark Pike.
“Oh, he’ll pull up film from years and years ago,” Klein said, “the stuff you can barely see, that looks like blobs on the screen. About two months ago, he pulled up the Buffalo Bills from back in the ’90s, when they were the best special teams crew in the league.”
DeHaven said his units have been improving of late. The best story would be the Panthers winning the Super Bowl on a blocked kick or some other special teams play.
He has a tough fight on his hands. But he’s grateful to be coaching, to be doing the thing he loves best. Whatever happens, he’s had a great life. He knows what Lou Gehrig meant when he called himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.
“I hear him in the mornings,” said Curtis Fuller, who assists DeHaven with the special teams. “He sings in the morning every day. I can hear him coming down the hall. He is still singing.”