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As special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven fights cancer, Panthers fight for him

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- It was another sticky, hot day at Wofford College as the 66-year-old coach in a floppy white hat and sunglasses walked briskly toward a player to explain what went wrong.

Four months ago, that coach, Bruce DeHaven, didn't think he would work again.

He was diagnosed with prostate cancer and told he had anywhere from a few months to five years to live.

He took a leave of absence from his new role as special-teams coordinator of the Carolina Panthers and returned to his home of the past 19 years in Buffalo, New York, for hormone treatments.

He convinced longtime friend Russ Purnell to come out of retirement to take his place in Carolina. DeHaven was prepared mentally that coaching, something he loved almost as much as life itself, was over for him.

Now he is preparing for Friday's preseason opener against the Bills.

"Staying busy," DeHaven said with a smile. "I'm busy enough so all those other problems aren't on my mind anymore."

DeHaven doesn't like talking about his medical condition. He hasn't discussed it with his players, even though he is still undergoing treatment.

But they know. And they admire.

"I know when a guy has to fight for his life and he still wants to coach, that's amazing," defensive end Mario Addison said. "Hell, we should get out there and fight for Bruce."

DeHaven's focus is on making sure the Panthers' special teams aren't an issue. Last year, the unit ranked near the bottom of the league in several key stats under Richard Rodgers. DeHaven doesn't talk about his health because "I don’t think it's an issue for those guys."

"That's my problem," he said of fighting cancer. "The only thing those guys should be concerned about is what can I do to help make them better players and win ballgames."

The Panthers have put more emphasis on special teams in practice and in meeting rooms. They signed players such as Jason Trusnik and Jordan Todman in free agency primarily for what they do on special teams. The team has more position coaches helping out.

But the biggest move was putting DeHaven in charge. As Rodgers' assistant, he didn't have full control over the energy and focus of the room.

Now he does.

"The whole demeanor and attitude is just different, starting in the meeting room with Bruce," defensive back Colin Jones said.

Not that DeHaven sat in the corner and kept quiet last year. When Jones made a mistake on a kickoff return against Tampa Bay, DeHaven let him and everyone else know it.

"His love for the game shows through," Jones said. "He's not afraid to call anybody out. That sets the tone, that you have to be accountable."

If there was a dean of special-teams coaches, DeHaven would be it. He helped the Bills reach four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s and made Steve Tasker the most well-known special-teams player in the league.

DeHaven coached under Bill Parcells in Dallas and Mike Holmgren in Seattle before joining Carolina in 2013.

DeHaven enjoys talking special teams like a chef enjoys talking about food. He's not sure why. Growing up on a farm in Kansas, basketball was his primary love.

"I wasn't tough enough to be a football player," said DeHaven, who led his basketball team in scoring two years at Southwestern College.

But DeHaven was passionate enough about teaching to be a good football coach, starting on the high school level in Kansas.

"In some ways, it always kind of motivated me because I've always felt like, 'Well, this guy didn't play college football. What's he know about this?'" DeHaven said. "I always felt I had to work a little harder."

DeHaven is working harder than ever now. He forever will be indebted to Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, who promised to do whatever DeHaven needed medically or financially to help during his treatment.

"He sat down right there at my desk," DeHaven said. "He said whatever you need, we're going to get you."

DeHaven wanted to work more than anything. He wanted that so badly that he organized treatment schedules so he didn’t have to miss practice.

Friday's preseason game comes at a good time because it allows him to return home Thursday morning to meet with doctors.

"At the time [I was diagnosed] I thought it was a horrible deal," DeHaven said. "I've kind of changed my mind since then. I'm pretty fortunate to have doctors that can treat this kind of thing.

"I'm just glad I'm still able to coach."