SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — When the San Francisco 49ers gathered to begin a training camp with fitness testing, there was one assistant coach who was happier than anyone to be back on the field.
As his linebackers went through the drills, Johnny Holland watched closely and documented the day as he was excited to coach every day after leaving last season to undergo cancer treatment.
“He’s like a grandpa,” said fourth-year linebacker Azeez Al-Shaarir. “He was there for our fitness test and he was already there taking pictures. This is literally like a grandpa just taking in the moment while cooking with the family. It’s great to have him back.”
Holland’s return to his full-time job has been one of the happier developments for the 49ers so far this year. He has always been one of the team’s most popular assistants because of the close relationship he has built with his players.
Al-Shaarr recalls his first summer with the team in 2019, when he spent time in the Bay Area after being signed as an undrafted free agent to recover from a college knee injury.
Al-Shaar didn’t even own a car, but regularly cycled from his hotel to Holland’s house, building a relationship.
“We would hang out on the weekends if there was no training,” Al-Shaari recalled. “Me and Johnny were very close since I was young as a rookie, so it didn’t really hurt him last year. We talked all the time. After the games he would text me and stuff. But having him in the room is great.”
Holland was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma in September 2019, but managed to coach the entire season and help the Niners reach the Super Bowl.
Holland had several rounds of remission and relapse before having to leave the team last summer to undergo experimental treatment at the University of California at San Francisco.
Holland was in the hospital for about a month and took a break from his day job for the entire season, although he would still show up at the team’s facility whenever he could, attend Zoom meetings and provide detailed reports to his linebackers after each. contest.
Now he is a daily presence on the field and in the conference room again.
“That’s our guy,” said linebacker Fred Warner. “I think he’s the best linebacker coach in the whole league. … As a coach you have to be able to teach first. You can yell and yell at guys all you want. But when you have a great teacher, someone who has it has been through all that experience and is able to give us that experience, teach us, love us, let us know we are the best, we will be at our best.”
Holland, 57, has been public about his battle with cancer in hopes of being an inspiration to families going through similar trials.
“It’s a tough deal to get through and it probably comes as a shock to families when people hear that word cancer,” Holland said. “It’s one of those deals where it’s hard to explain if you hadn’t experienced it. I learned so much from this. The strength you have, the encouragement of positive people around you, the difference it makes and thinking about your future. … There are many other people going through the same struggle. I just want to be in a position to help.”
The Netherlands has spent more than three decades in the NFL, starting as a linebacker at Green Bay in 1987 and then coaching the Packers, Seahawks, Lions, Texans, Raiders, Browns and 49ers.
Holland was hired on coach Kyle Shanahan’s first staff in San Francisco in 2017 and is very close to defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who played for Holland in Houston early in his career, calling him a “father figure” who taught him about football. , family and life skills.
“Johnny is very special to me,” Ryans said. “It’s good to see what he’s been through and the people he can influence with his story, that’s even more powerful for me for Johnny. I’m excited to see him again and he’s just always positive, always has a smile on his face, always uplifting, always brings a lot of energy to every room he steps in so I’m excited to have him back for sure.”
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