The Panthers’ Special Coach

Bruce DeHaven returned to coordinate Carolina’s special teams this season despite battling prostate cancer, but the veteran coach insists his plight isn't a story worthy of the Super Bowl spotlight
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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Bruce DeHaven will gush about the people he works with in Carolina, or analyze the evolution of special teams over his 29 years of coaching it in the NFL. He’ll even talk about “wide right.” But he’s reticent to talk about himself—specifically, his health, and how he’s been battling prostate cancer while being the special-teams coordinator for the team with the best record in the NFL.

“I appreciate the interest, I really do,” DeHaven says kindly. “But it is not a story.”

In May, when he was diagnosed, his doctor told him he likely had three to five years to live. DeHaven insists he’s doing well, and that being part of the Panthers’ magical season has kept his mind off his health concerns. True to form, when asked about his plans after Super Bowl 50, DeHaven said he he’ll return to Buffalo, where he coached during the Bills’ four Super Bowls and has been receiving cancer treatments. When the time comes, he’ll get ready for the combine.

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“Nobody cares about this, really, but me and my family,” says DeHaven, whose wife, son, daughter and sister will be in Santa Clara for Sunday’s game. But that, of course, couldn’t be farther from the truth. In a season of special things for the Panthers, DeHaven’s resolve has certainly been an inspiration.

VRENTAS: Does being back here remind you of your four trips to the Super Bowl with Buffalo?

DEHAVEN: Well, other than that there is, maybe, 50 to 100 times more people here at Media Day. The last time I was here [in 1993], it was still just a small hall, with some tables set up, and you could walk around and see everybody during that time. This has changed a lot.

VRENTAS: How is your health today?

DEHAVEN: Good. I feel good.

VRENTAS: How have you handled what has been a unique set of circumstances for you this season?

DEHAVEN: Well, no, it really hasn’t been, though. I missed one meeting the whole year. For me, it is a non-story. It should be about those guys and everything they have done. It should be about them.

Bruce DeHaven (Photo by John DePetro/The MMQB)

Bruce DeHaven (Photo by John DePetro/The MMQB)

VRENTAS: People around the Panthers would agree, though, that what you have been able to do this season is remarkable.

DEHAVEN: I go into that cancer hospital up in Buffalo, and I see those little kids with the bald heads. Those are the kids who are tough. Those are the kids who’ve got the problem. Not me.

VRENTAS: Why did you choose to get your treatment in Buffalo?

DEHAVEN: I thought it was going to be a little more long-term than what it has turned out to be. They were able to do a little different treatment, which is not having to have the chemotherapy right now. So I am good. Everything is good. I don’t like talking about it. The story here is these guys and what they have done. Actually, my story detracts from what they are doing.

VRENTAS: What is special about this team?

DEHAVEN: Well, they like each other, for one thing. The team really likes each other. They are fearless. No moment seems to be too big for them.

VRENTAS: Why is nothing too big for this team?

DEHAVEN: I wish I knew that, if I did I could probably sell it to somebody. I have no idea.

VRENTAS: How has Ron Rivera led the team to this point?

DEHAVEN: Even in the three years I have been here, he’s a better coach every year. He’s a better coach every week. He is not satisfied with the status quo; he wants to be better every week.

VRENTAS: When you chose to coach this season, you talked about making the special teams unit better than last season. Has that happened to your satisfaction?

DEHAVEN: Well, we have gotten better about every week. We have a ways to go, and just about the time we get it. For example, we go to Tennessee [Week 10], and we get five tackles inside the 20. The next ball game, against Washington, the first kickoff gets a tackle inside the 20. Then the next kickoff they run it back for a touchdown. What are we doing? So it has kind of been up and down, a little bit like that. It’s harder coaching special teams when you are winning like we have been, where you get a big lead and now you just don’t want to do anything to let the momentum switch back in the other direction. You start playing safe, which is not the best way to play special teams. I do think we are much better now than we were when we started out. We’ve got guys who are healthy, so I think we’re better.

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VRENTAS: Thomas Davis on the hands team in the divisional round was a sight to behold.

DEHAVEN: I like those defensive guys on the hands team, because they are tough guys. That’s still the one play in football where the guys have no protection. [On punts], guys can either fair catch, or they can just decide to not catch the ball and protect themselves, but they have no choice on the on-side kick. That’s one thing the league needs to look at changing, maybe like college does, where they have to have two bounces and not just one, to give those guys a chance. I like putting Thomas out there, because he is a tough guy and he is an athlete and he’s going to do whatever he can to get there.

VRENTAS: What’s changed in your 29 years coaching special teams in the NFL?

DEHAVEN: Well, the biggest change is that when I came in ’87, there were about four or five teams I thought played well on special teams. It was like shooting fish in a barrel sometimes when we would play some of those teams. Then, they just kept getting better. Everybody got better and better, and now there are maybe three or four teams that aren’t quite as good as everybody else. It’s just harder. It’s harder to win on Sunday than it used to be.

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VRENTAS: You coached in four Super Bowls with Buffalo. What from that experience might be able to help your players?

DEHAVEN: It’s like I told ’em, Listen, I’ve been to four of ’em and lost all four. I think I’m going to put it on you guys. You guys probably have a better chance of figuring this out yourselves than anything I’ve done. I tried to get you here, now it’s up to you from here on in.

VRENTAS: How often do you get asked about “wide right”?

DEHAVEN: I don’t get it much. The kid put a good kick on it. He almost hit it too hard, it just never turned for him. If he hit it over in the corner of the end zone, that would have been one thing, but it would have been good from 60-some yards if it had been a little bit straighter. You could imagine—I don’t know how you deal with something like that. You’re there for him when he needs it, but people forget we come back the next year and beat Denver in the conference championship, 10-7, and the difference was a 44-yard field goal by Scott Norwood.

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VRENTAS: One of the most touching moments of ESPN’s “Four Falls of Buffalo” film was when you were sitting on the steps of Buffalo City Hall reminiscing with Norwood, and you reach out and touch his shoulder in a tough moment.

DEHAVEN: Scotty was having a tough time getting through that interview. He and I have talked back and forth some, I have seen him briefly at some games back in Buffalo, but that was the most time we had spent together in a while, talking about all those things. He is a good man. I love him dearly.

VRENTAS: After your cancer diagnosis, what support did owner Jerry Richardson give you?

DEHAVEN: I couldn’t ask for anymore. During the draft, he came down while I was getting ready to leave and go up to Buffalo to see the doctors. He just came in and sat down and said, “Whatever it takes, you’ve got it.” I don’t get a chance to talk to him much, but it was good to hear that.

VRENTAS: With your team in the Super Bowl, looking back now on your decision to coach…

DEHAVEN: Seems like a pretty good decision, doesn’t it? That’s the great thing about football: You never know.

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