How 49ers LB coach Holland keeps ‘blessed' mindset amid cancer fight

How 49ers LB coach Holland keeps ‘blessed' mindset amid cancer fight originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

While preparing the 49ers for battle on the gridiron, linebackers coach Johnny Holland has waged a different fight off the field for the past four-plus years.

The 58-year-old was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer, multiple myeloma, before San Francisco's 2019 NFL season. But one Super Bowl and two NFC Championship Game appearances later, Holland still is coaching a star-studded linebacker group prepared to make its fourth playoff appearance in five campaigns this Saturday at Levi's Stadium.

Earlier this season, NBC Sports' Peter King accompanied Holland to one of his monthly chemo treatments before the 49ers' Week 13 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, where the linebackers coach shared how he remains positive in the face of such a horrible disease. The sportswriter shared the story in his "Football Morning in America" column on Monday.

“I used to say, ‘Man, I’m just blessed to have this day.’ But now it’s like, okay, for real, I’m blessed to have another day," Holland told King on their drive to the UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco. "When they hook me up to the IVs, it reminds you that man, this is serious. Like, you’re getting this treatment to live another day.

“People don’t like to talk about it, but we’re all gonna die. You don’t have a letter with an expiration date on your life. One person knows my expiration date: God. ...

“Fulfilling your purpose while you’re here is more important than trying to figure out how long you’re gonna live.”

Holland is in his seventh season with the 49ers and fourth as the team's linebackers coach. A relapse of his illness in 2021 forced him to step away from his role with the 49ers from Sept. 2021 until his official return that next spring. These days, in Holland's 22nd season as an NFL assistant, the coach returns to work after undergoing treatment to attack an illness for which there is no cure.

“When he first told me he was doing that, I was like, ‘You’re joking, right?’” Holland's nurse, Samantha Shenoy, told King. “It’s mind-blowing to me he’s able to do all that and keep going.”

Under Holland's watch, star 49ers linebacker Fred Warner has reached First-Team All-Pro status and the Pro Bowl three times -- 2020, 2022 and 2023. Holland is revered by the players he coaches, and Warner is no different. Warner told King that even in the face of Holland's cancer, his leadership and love for life never has waned -- and that approach has rubbed off on the All-Pro.

“If you’ve met Johnny for the first time,” Warner told King, “you’d never know anything was wrong. The life that he brings, the energy he brings day in and day out, it’s unbelievable. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and remind myself that he does have, you know, something serious that he is dealing with. How can you watch that, as one of his players, and think, ‘Man, you know, I’m just not feeling it today. I’m gonna take today off.’

"I got the blueprint right there. I got the guy who’s giving his all through the toughest of times. That’s probably one of the greatest blessings that I’ve had in my career, to be able to see that every day.”

Holland told King he never thinks, "Why me?"

"I’m glad it’s me and not someone else I love," Holland said. "God built me for this. I’ve learned in sports the game’s not over till there’s no time left on the clock. One second left, and you’ve got a chance. And now, this is the game of life I’m playing.”

Holland's "blessed" mindset certainly is one to which every player on the 49ers should aspire. And with the way San Francisco's defense had performed with the linebackers coach on board, his impact both on and off the field is clear.

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