Carolina Panthers

Remembering Bruce DeHaven, who died at age 68 after battle with cancer

Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano, left, is hugged by special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven, right, following Gano's game winning field goal kick vs the New York Giants in the final seconds of fourth quarter action at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ on Sunday, December 20, 2015. The Panthers defeated the Giants 38-35.
Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano, left, is hugged by special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven, right, following Gano's game winning field goal kick vs the New York Giants in the final seconds of fourth quarter action at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ on Sunday, December 20, 2015. The Panthers defeated the Giants 38-35. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Whenever I would check in with Bruce DeHaven after he left for Buffalo in August, the Carolina Panthers special teams advisor would ask about the goings-on with the team.

But DeHaven always made a point to tell me to spend as much time as I could with my family. It wasn't idle talk. He understood the importance of being close to the ones you love.

After DeHaven died Tuesday evening following a lengthy battle with cancer, his former players and colleagues heaped praise on a man who spent 30 years in the NFL and was widely regarded as one of the league's best special teams coaches.

The tributes all mentioned his football acumen, but the emphasis was on the lives DeHaven touched.

"I was a better football player because Bruce DeHaven was my coach, but I was a better man because Bruce DeHaven was my friend," former Buffalo Bills special teams ace Steve Tasker said. "I will miss him very, very much."

I was a better football player because Bruce DeHaven was my coach, but I was a better man because Bruce DeHaven was my friend. I will miss him very, very much.

Former Buffalo Bills special teams ace Steve Tasker

DeHaven, who was 68, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the spring of 2015 and learned later it had spread to his back. He took a leave of absence to begin receiving treatment, but returned for the start of the Panthers' Super Bowl season last year.

Panthers long snapper J.J. Jansen remembers DeHaven meeting with him, kicker Graham Gano and former punter Brad Nortman before an OTA practice in 2015 to tell them he had cancer.

"He pulls us together and goes, 'I just want to let you know I'm sick. I'm going back to Buffalo. I'm going to be OK,'" Jansen recalled. "Then he looked Brad right in the eye and said, 'Now let's go punt.' So he didn't want to talk about that as much as he wanted to focus on his players and football."

DeHaven spent part of the 2015 season and much of this past offseason shuttling between Charlotte and Buffalo, where his oncologist was based.

More importantly, Buffalo is where DeHaven's family is -- his wife, Kathy, and their two children, Toby and Annie. DeHaven wanted to be around them as much as he could.

He brought Toby, a college student, to Spartanburg for the Panthers' training camp in 2015.

DeHaven was back at Wofford this summer for the start of camp and hoped his stamina would hold up. When he realized he didn't have the energy the job required, DeHaven relinquished his position to assistant Thomas McGaughey, accepted the advisory role and drove home to Buffalo.

DeHaven never wanted the story to be about him -- not during the Super Bowl week in San Jose and not when he decided to step down from coaching.

"I’ve just reached a point where I have to make more visits (to Buffalo) and I thought it was becoming distracting," DeHaven said in August. "I don’t have the energy I’ve had in the past. I don’t think I can coach the way I think it needs to be done. I just don’t want to give anything but my best to Mr. Richardson and the Panthers."

On the day he left Spartanburg after 46 years in coaching, DeHaven, a former high school history teacher, stopped by Cowpens National Battlefield and spent an hour walking the grounds.

Gano said on Twitter he was hurting after hearing the news about his former coach. Gano, like Tasker, called DeHaven "a great coach & an even better man."

Panthers coach Ron Rivera tweeted: "#RIP Coach Bruce DeHaven. Our time together was short but I'm proud to say I coached on the same sideline as you."

After returning to Buffalo this year, DeHaven would watch game videos of the Panthers special teams and text recommendations to McGaughey and assistant Chase Blackburn.

"He wanted to be involved as long as he could," Blackburn said. "He'd send us little tidbits every single week about things we could improve or things he saw in the opponent, which was fantastic."

And every week, Blackburn said DeHaven would end his text with the following line: "Enough of that. Time to get back to work. You've got a job to do."

When Panthers players gathered for their meeting Wednesday, Jansen said a prayer for DeHaven. McGaughey then started a PowerPoint presentation that began with DeHaven's words: "Enough of that. Time to get back to work. You've got a job to do."

Coaching football was DeHaven's job his entire life, but it didn't consume him.

He was a big music fan and was interested in trains and anything related to his home state of Kansas. And of course, his family.

"For as much football as he knows, we didn't talk a lot of football. We talked about life and everything else," Jansen said. "I think one of the biggest things that he brought to our team and our group is he just loved people."

"He had so much depth to who he was," Jansen added. "He was not just a football coach."

Carolina was the last of five NFL teams DeHaven coached. He had two stints in Buffalo, and sought public acceptance and closure for former kicker Scott Norwood, whose missed field goal cost the Bills a Super Bowl victory.

Marv Levy, the coach of those Bills' Super Bowl teams, said DeHaven was a premiere special teams coach and a "special person."

"His work ethic, his love for and his dedication to the game, his caring about those players from whom he was able to bring forth their maximum talents and who revere him are all signature features which distinguished him," Levy said.

"Beyond that, he was a wonderful husband and father possessed of a happy and upbeat nature," Levy added. "What a privilege it was for me and for all the members of our coaching staff to have been colleagues and friends of Bruce DeHaven."

One of the last texts I traded with DeHaven was the day before Thanksgiving. He and Kathy were hosting a number of her relatives, whom DeHaven described as "20 wild Irish up from Pittsburgh."

DeHaven, always the family man, was looking forward to a loud, fun weekend.

"If the house is rocking don't bother knocking," DeHaven wrote. "Come on in."

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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