SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After his second bout with cancer in the past three years, San Francisco 49ers linebackers coach Johnny Holland is back in his element: on the football field, doing the thing he loves most and making sure to enjoy every second of it.
Holland, who is entering his 31st season in the league either coaching or playing, stepped away from the 49ers in September of last season in order to begin a second round of treatment for multiple myeloma at nearby Stanford Medical Center and the University of California-San Francisco. Holland had previously been away from the team after the initial diagnosis of multiple myeloma — a cancer of plasma cells — in 2019.
Although Holland, 57, was able to be back around the team at points in the 2021 season, he made his official return to a regular coaching role in the spring.
On Thursday, Holland said he is feeling “great” and that his cancer is in remission, which has allowed him to be on the field coaching 49ers linebackers in this training camp.
“When you’re not around something, you miss it a lot,” Holland said. “Just to be full time, every time I step out there, you appreciate it even more. It’s definitely exciting and enjoyable and fun being out there coaching the guys again.”
During his time away, Holland said he often found himself missing the camaraderie that comes with his job. He pointed to the chance to teach players, the atmosphere of a team building toward a common goal and even the mundane things like training camp practices as aspects of the job he missed most.
It wasn’t just what he missed but what he was doing instead that offered even greater perspective. Holland equated being away from the team to a trial run of what retirement would be like. Suffice to say, it wasn’t for him.
“I can’t imagine not being around the game and not being involved in it,” Holland said. “And that’s been the majority of my life (I’ve) been involved with football. it’s something that you look forward to every year. That’s really been part of my medication is being involved in the game and having something to do and look forward to has been really helpful for me.”
Since multiple myeloma has no cure, Holland said he still has an extensive treatment plan to keep his cancer in remission. That treatment includes what Holland described as a clinical trial but he says so far, the results have been positive and allowed him to work regular hours despite occasional protests and reminders from players and coaches that he’s working too much.
Because Holland is considered immunocompromised, he also has to take a few extra precautions when it comes to COVID-19. He said players have been cognizant of that and his wife has stayed on top of him to do what he can to protect himself.
“I’ve got to realize that health is first,” Holland said. “I love my job and I love doing what I’m doing but I have to go take treatment. If you don’t have your health, you can’t do this. So, I understand that I’ve got to listen to my doctors and do exactly what they want me to do to be allowed to do this as long as I can. That’s been really something that’s changed for me. As a former player and (now a) coach, you feel like you can push yourself through anything, but there comes a point where you’ve really got to listen to the professionals.”
Holland’s return has been a more than welcome sight to the Niners linebacker room. In his absence, the everyone in the franchise has made sure to let Holland know he was never far from their thoughts.
At a practice last August, every member of the organization wore T-shirts with the letters “I.G.Y.B.” on the back and Holland’s initials just above them. The letters stand for “I Got Your Back,” which has been a team mantra since coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch arrived in 2017. Even in this camp, various coaches and players still wear the shirts.
When the NFL had its annual “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign in October, Shanahan had special shoes made supporting Holland and the ongoing search for a cure for multiple myeloma.
#49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is participating in “My Cause, My Cleats” this weekend with these shoes supporting assistant coach Johnny Holland and his battle with multiple myeloma. His cause is the Institute for Myeloma and Bone Cancer Research. pic.twitter.com/SQhSKtFdiz
— Nick Wagoner (@nwagoner) December 3, 2021
According to linebacker Fred Warner, Holland’s return has injected a little extra energy into his position group.
“It’s been everything,” Warner said. “That’s our guy. I think he’s the best linebacker coach in the entire league … when you have a great teacher, somebody who’s been through it, has all that experience, and is able to kind of give us that experience, teaching us, loving us up, letting us know that we are the best. And in turn, that’s gonna, you know, that’s gonna sit with us and we’re gonna be able to go out there and perform at our best.”
Holland said that type of support is key in helping him get back on the field where he belongs.
“That’s what keeps me going,” Holland said. “Kyle and the players and the other coaches have been outstanding. That’s what really keeps me going and motivates me to be an example. It’s been unbelievable that the support that I’ve gotten.”