SAN JOSE – Bruce DeHaven continued to insist he should not be a story during Super Bowl week. After all, he said the players are the ones who make the game.
But, in so many ways, this is about DeHaven – everything he has experienced and everything he has yet to endure.
As the seconds ticked off in the Carolina Panthers’ victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship game two weeks ago, a TV camera captured DeHaven on the sideline. Amid the celebration around him, he looked as if he were flooded by a torrent of emotions and thoughts.
What could’ve been going through his head?
DeHaven was the special teams coach of four consecutive Buffalo Bills’ appearances – and losses – in the Super Bowl two decades ago. He was fired after one of the most bizarre endings to an NFL playoff game. The coach who fired him, as it turns out, will be the defensive coordinator of the Panthers’ opponent in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
And, then, there’s this: A doctor delivered DeHaven the diagnosis last spring that he has an advanced stage of prostate cancer. He was told he most likely has only three to five years to live.
“You get in the moment,” said DeHaven, 67. “There are times when I’m off and I’m not working when I think about all of that. It is surreal that we’re going back.”
DeHaven returned to the Panthers after taking a leave of absence in the offseason to undergo treatment in Buffalo. He continued to make regular in-season trips to Buffalo to deal with the disease. DeHaven said he feels good, and he has continued to do what he has done for nearly three decades.
“When he took the leave of absence, he came back like nothing was wrong,” said Panthers tight end Ed Dickson, one of DeHaven’s core special teams players. “It would be much sweeter to get him that victory to know the path he had to take to overcome all that.”
DeHaven spent three seasons with the 49ers from 2000 to ’02 on Steve Mariucci’s staff with the 49ers. Truth be told, it was a job he never wanted.
Then-Buffalo Bills coach Wade Phillips made DeHaven the scapegoat for the latest in a long line of the organization’s postseason disappointments. DeHaven’s kicker, Steve Christie, hit a field goal with 16 seconds remaining to give the Bills a 16–15 lead over the Tennessee Titans.
On the ensuring kickoff, Tennessee’s Frank Wycheck lateraled across the field to Kevin Dyson, who ran untouched 75 yards for the game-winning touchdown. The play became a part of NFL lore as “The Music City Miracle.”
DeHaven always maintained Wycheck’s throw was a forward lateral. Referee Phil Luckett reviewed the play in front of the Titans’ home crowd and the play was upheld.
After 13 seasons in charge of one of the top special teams units in the league, DeHaven was out with the Bills. DeHaven admits to prolonged bitterness over his abrupt dismissal. But he said he has come to peace with Phillips, who will be on the other sideline Sunday as the Denver Broncos' highly respected defensive coordinator.
“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 down in Houston a couple years ago, and 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 very happy that I reached out to him, approached him. That’s just the way the business is, and I’m old enough and experienced enough to understand that.”
DeHaven bounced around with the 49ers, Dallas, Seattle, and back to Buffalo, before joining Ron Rivera’s staff with the Panthers in 2013. And, now, DeHaven is back in the Super Bowl for a fifth time.
“We know he’s been here before – four Super Bowls,” Carolina rookie Shaq Thompson said. “And we plan on getting him one.”
DeHaven said he had more than 60 messages – including from many from his former Bills players -- when he checked his phone after the Panthers’ victory to clinch DeHaven’s return to the Super Bowl.
DeHaven and the Bills never got closer to a Super Bowl title than in the first appearance on Jan. 21, 1997, against the New York Giants.
“Most people when they think of Super Bowl XXV, they think of Whitney Houston signing the National Anthem and Scott Norwood missing that kick at the end,” DeHaven said.
Norwood’s 47-yard field goal attempt was wide right, and the Giants held on to a 20-19 victory.
“And there’s so much more than that that kick,” DeHaven said. “We asked him to do something he’d never done before. He’d never hit a kick off grass from that distance in the league.
“Whether it’s his fault or somebody else’s fault, he never should’ve been put in that position with that team that we had. I don’t know how you ever get over anything like that. Every year it got a little harder to take.”
Three more Super Bowl appearance in successive years were not nearly as dramatic. The Bills lost to Washington (37-24), Dallas (52-17) and, again, to Dallas (30-13). And DeHaven had to wonder if he would ever get another chance to get back.
DeHaven likes to say that good things happen if you get out of bed and go to work every day. And that’s exactly what he has done during the most trying time of his life.
DeHaven is reticent to speak publicly about the disease because he does not want the constant reminders to his wife, Kathy, and their children, Toby, a fresham in college, and AnnieMaude, a sophomore in high school.
But DeHaven’s upbeat approach and attention to detail in scheming the Panthers’ special teams is deserving of all plaudits.
“I feel good. That’s the good thing," DeHaven said. "I don’t even like talking about it. I feel guilty about it because I feel good. Whatever happens down the line, I don’t know.”