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On Sports

DeHaven hopes to share an NFL title with former Bills

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Rochester Business Journal
February 5, 2016

His phone has been blowing up with congratulatory messages since that moment two Sundays ago when the Carolina Panthers punched their tickets to Super Bowl 50. And the calls and texts that have resonated most deeply with Bruce DeHaven are those from the special teams players he coached during the Buffalo Bills glory years.

A quarter century later, the bonds he formed with Scott Norwood, Steve Tasker, Mark Pike, Steve Christie, Adam Lingner and several others remain closer than two coats of paint as he attempts to cap a 46-year coaching odyssey with an elusive Super Bowl ring.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about those guys,’’ DeHaven said by phone this week. “They’re the men who helped establish my NFL career. They enabled me to pursue my coaching dreams at the highest level. I think some of them feel that I’m representing them a little bit here, like their former teammate Don Beebe did when he won a ring after leaving Buffalo for the Green Bay Packers. That certainly would make winning it more special, because I want them to know that in my heart they’re a part of this, too.”

It has been a bittersweet season for DeHaven; a season, though, that, in his words, has been “much more sweet than bitter.”

Last May, the 66-year-old Panthers special teams coach was diagnosed with prostate cancer. And although he admits that he thinks about it every day, he doesn’t dwell on it like he did in the first few weeks after he was given the chilling news. DeHaven, who maintains a home in Orchard Park, said his treatments at Buffalo’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute have gone well and that he feels good.

“I’ve only missed one meeting all season and that had nothing to do with how I was feeling and everything to do with the airlines screwing up my flight from Buffalo to Charlotte,’’ he said, chuckling.

Work has been a huge part of his therapy.

“One of the best things about this season, besides, of course, the winning, has been the opportunity to keep doing something I absolutely love,” he said. “I truly believe that your mind and your attitude can play such a big role in your health. I don’t think it’s a good thing to be sitting around feeling sorry for yourself and thinking about all your problems. Coaching is probably the best medicine I can have at this point.”

DeHaven can’t help but see some similarities between the Cam Newton-led Panthers and those Super Bowl Bills of the early 1990s.

“These guys, like our Buffalo guys, are really tight,’’ he said. “They genuinely like each other. They like being with each other, on and off the field. And they definitely like to have a lot of fun. Maybe not as much fun as our Bills teams had—we might have had too much fun at times. But it’s the same chemistry, the same energy.”

He also sees similarities between the teams’ high-octane offenses and small-market appeal.

“I just think when a team catches fire in a small city like Charlotte or Buffalo, it means so much more to those people than it does to people in places like New York or Dallas. It’s been fun seeing how our team has captured the imagination of people here. It’s been crazy, but not as crazy as it was in Buffalo. I don’t know if I’ll ever see anything like that again.”

Although he is regarded as one of the best special teams coaches of all-time, DeHaven’s 16 seasons in Buffalo included two of the most painful plays in Bills history: Wide Right and Home Run Throwback, aka The Music City Miracle.

Norwood’s missed field goal try from 47 yards in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XXV continues to haunt many. DeHaven described it “like being shot in the gut.” But he’d rather dwell on the dignified way Norwood has handled the heartbreak. DeHaven was so moved by it that he later named one of his sons after the kicker who became a close friend.

“I think Scott has shown tremendous courage in dealing with it,’’ DeHaven said. “It clearly hasn’t been easy. You know that you are never going to get over it. Time may lessen the pain, but it won’t heal it. But Scott has handled it better than anyone could have.”

The other regrettable play occurred during the Bills last playoff appearance, in 2000, when Kevin Dyson of the Tennessee Titans returned a kickoff for the winning touchdown on a controversial play that featured a lateral that should have been ruled an illegal forward pass.

DeHaven, whose teams have ranked No. 1 in kickoff coverage six times, was made the scapegoat. Even though DeHaven had the return defensed perfectly and a few players failed to do their jobs, then-head Bills coach Wade Phillips fired his assistant after the season. For years, DeHaven resented Phillips for making him the sacrificial lamb. But during DeHaven’s second stint with the Bills, he decided to forgive him. Before a 2012 game in which Phillips was coaching the Houston Texans, DeHaven went up to his former boss and said he wanted to put everything to rest.

“He seemed pretty happy that I had done that – and I was, too,’’ DeHaven recalled. “He gave me a big hug and we moved on.”

Interestingly, their paths will cross again in Sunday’s Super Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., because Phillips is the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator.

“I’m glad we took care of that unfinished business a few years ago,” DeHaven said. “I don’t want to go to my grave holding grudges against anyone. It’s just not worth it.”

Another piece of unfinished business can be taken care of Sunday, and it involves that elusive Super Bowl championship. DeHaven would love to experience what it is like to clutch a Lombardi Trophy. And if that happens, he’ll feel as if he is holding it for so many others, including those former Bills who helped him pursue his passion at the highest level for three decades. It would be the perfect ending to a season that has been much more sweet than bitter.

Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.

2/5/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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What You're Saying 

Frank Cicha at 6:40:27 AM on 2/5/2016
Interesting article. TY Scott.

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