On the first day in 46 years that Bruce DeHaven wasn’t coaching football, the Panthers special teams coordinator stopped by Cowpens National Battlefield on his way back to Charlotte.
DeHaven, a former high school history teacher, had driven past the Cowpens exit on I-85 a couple dozen times over the past few years but never had time to stop.
Sunday morning he had time to stop.
DeHaven spent an hour walking along a trail at Cowpens, site of the 1781 battle that helped turn the Revolutionary War in the Patriots’ favor. He nearly had the place to himself: He saw one other visitor walking the grounds.
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“It was really cool, really neat,” DeHaven said. “It was inspirational. There’s a battle that changed the course of our country.”
DeHaven was speaking by phone from Bank of America Stadium, where he dropped by to clean out his office after his trip to Cowpens. By Tuesday or Wednesday, he will be back in Buffalo to resume his cancer treatments, having turned the coordinator’s title over to his assistant Thomas McGaughey.
Former Panthers and Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn, a special teams intern, will assist McGaughey.
DeHaven, 67, will become the senior special teams advisor as long as he’s feeling up to it.
He hopes to be back in Charlotte for the Panthers’ Week 2 game against San Francisco but said most people will have forgotten about him by then.
The sad truth is DeHaven might be right.
Football might be the ultimate team game, but the NFL is a star-driven league. Fans are ravenous in their appetites for information about the likes of Cam Newton or Luke Kuechly, but they learn little about the lesser-known players on any given roster.
The media feeds the beast by pumping out pulpy stories about Newton’s new blonde goatee or Kuechly’s do-gooder persona, chasing clicks and likes and followers. There’s not much said or written about the second- and third-teamers populating the Panthers’ 90-man roster.
Same goes for Ron Rivera’s assistant coaches, whose interests, family backgrounds and personal stories often go untold. What fans and media members generally want to know from coaches is what’s wrong with a specific play call, punt protection or defensive alignment.
Then a coach like DeHaven gets cancer and we’re all reminded that there are lives behind those whistles and whiteboards.
“I think that’s important that people understand,” Rivera said. “As much as people see the things that we do, there’s still that human element to it. And Bruce is a great example.
“Here’s a guy that the last year and a half has been battling, and has done a great job and was able to coach all of last season.”
DeHaven 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 treatment after being told he might have three to five years to live.
DeHaven returned for the Panthers’ 15-1 regular season and run to the Super Bowl, where he told reporters who asked about his illness he didn’t want to detract from the players by talking about it.
He began wearing a supportive brace to practice during the spring, after back surgery to repair part of his spine the cancer had damaged. If DeHaven was hurting, he didn’t let his players know.
“I’ve never heard Bruce complain at all. He’s been through a lot, but you never knew,” special teams regular Colin Jones said. “I had no idea he was going to go back to Buffalo even. So it was a little bit of a surprise.”
DeHaven spent the summer with his family and came to Wofford hoping to make it through training camp. He’d wake up feeling good most mornings before tiring later in the day.
“I’ve just reached a point where I have to make more visits (to Buffalo) and I thought it was becoming distracting,” DeHaven said. “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.”
DeHaven said team owner Jerry Richardson sent him a note last week that was one of the nicest he’d ever received. Richardson would always ask how he was feeling, not how the cancer was affecting his ability to coach.
DeHaven has built a reputation as one of the NFL’s top special teams coaches over his 30 years in the league. He was with Buffalo for all four of the Bills’ Super Bowl losses in the 1990s, and was hired by Rivera in 2013 after DeHaven’s second stint with Buffalo.
He’s also an interesting and well-rounded guy, a former small-school basketball player in Kansas who became a teacher and coach only after failing his Army physical (because of knee and back injuries) during the Vietnam War.
There were no basketball jobs open, so DeHaven took a position teaching history and coaching football at a junior high in Oxford, Kansas in 1970.
“We went undefeated and I never looked back,” he said. “I said, I think this is the job for me.”
Until Sunday it was the only job he has ever known.
DeHaven, a music lover and Civil War buff, said the silver lining in leaving is the time he’ll spend with his family. He and his wife decided to keep their kids in school in Buffalo when DeHaven came to Charlotte.
His son is a college sophomore who accompanied him to training camp the past two summers. DeHaven also has a daughter in high school.
After he packed up Sunday morning in Spartanburg, DeHaven tried to slip out of town quietly. But he bumped into a couple of players, including long-snapper J.J. Jansen, with whom he developed a close bond.
“Everybody I talked to, I’d get all emotional and start tearing up and I just didn’t want to do that,” DeHaven said. “I’d like to think I’m going to be back down there at some point, so I didn’t want a bunch of good-byes.”
He let Rivera tell the special teams players about DeHaven’s new role during a Sunday morning meeting. By that time DeHaven was already on the road to Cowpens, the first stop in what he’s viewing as little more than a four- or five-week break.
Here’s hoping he’s right.