Sam Wyche’s last coaching job in the NFL was with the Buffalo Bills.
He spent only two seasons, 2004 and 2005, as their quarterbacks coach, but it was long enough to marvel at the passion of the fans – which he had previously witnessed during the few times he led the Cincinnati Bengals into Orchard Park -- and the fury of a Western New York winter.
“I remember not being able to get into my condo one night after work because the snow was piled up everywhere,” Wyche recalled by phone the other day from his home in Pickens, S.C. “I ended up digging a tunnel to the garage door and I was able to move it open far enough. I slid in, got about four hours sleep, and slid back out.”
He laughed as he told the story. Although Wyche might not necessarily cherish the memory of crawling through snow, he was beyond thrilled to be able to share it.
That’s because a month ago, he thought he was a goner.
Wyche, 71, was in a bed at Carolina Medical Center, awaiting a heart transplant. He was 1-A on the list to receive one from an organ donor, but there was no way of knowing when it would arrive. Wyche wasn’t in need of just any heart. It had to come from a male roughly his size, 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, and with a matching blood type.
Time was running out. The right side of his existing heart had stopped working. The left side could only carry the load for so long.
On Labor Day morning, a doctor entered Wyche’s room and told him that the clock had essentially expired and that he would be discharged in the afternoon and sent to hospice. “Which is obviously where they take you when they know you’re not going to survive,” Wyche said.
That afternoon, however, the hopeless narrative made an abrupt U-turn. A matching heart had finally come in. It was in good shape. The transplant was a go.
“After I woke up, the nurses said, ‘Boy, you just barely made it under the wire,’” Wyche said.
Since the surgery, his daily routine involves swallowing anywhere from 28-30 pills. Each has a function to help his new heart fight against being rejected by his body. The main enemy is infection.
Wyche’s regimen also includes walking – with a minute added each day – as he carries a three-pound weight in each hand. He recently surpassed 30 minutes.
His voice is strong as he discusses his efforts to get the NFL and all of its teams to encourage fans to register to become organ donors.
There’s more laughter as he remembers what Mike Mularkey, who began his coaching career guiding the tight ends on Wyche’s Tampa Bay staff, told him after offering Wyche the quarterbacks coach job with the Bills in 2004.
“He said, ‘Just kind of be down the hall from me so that I don’t make the same stupid mistakes you made when you started out,’” said Wyche, who at the time was working in the same capacity for the Pickens High School football team. “I said, ‘I’m your guy, because I did every stupid thing you can do and I can see them coming a mile away.’”
Regular-season games at the Ralph made a profound impact on him. He still finds it amazing that the RV lot would beginning filling on Thursday before a Sunday game.
“And then on Sunday morning, my wife would drop me off at the edge of the parking lot on Jim Kelly Drive and I’d walk through the parking lot and everybody in the place was offering me breakfast,” Wyche said. “And then you had the snow. Many a night I would just be trying to stay between the telephone poles on my way home. At one or two (in the morning), the traffic had been gone for quite a while and you couldn’t see the reflectors anymore on the fire hydrants because the snow was piled up on the sides where the snowplows had come through.”
After his second year with the Bills, Wyche returned to Pickens High.
He’s out of football now and in the process of writing his memoir. He thought the book was pretty much finished before his health scare, but he’s planning to add one more chapter.
“I’m calling it, ‘The Hail Mary,’” Wyche said.
*To understand Matt Ryan’s incredible start to the season, you need to understand a little bit about how the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback thinks. And while physical skills have plenty to do with why he leads the NFL with 1,740 passing yards and is averaging an eye-popping 10.4 yards per pass – something no quarterback has done since Norm Van Brocklin averaged 10.1 in 1954 with the Los Angeles Rams – there is a mental aspect to his success that is undeniable. He offered this vivid picture of life in the pocket to ESPN The Magazine: “We are under constant barrage in the pocket now. Facing it requires a certain feel, a sixth sense. Because the minute you’re looking at the edge rush and not downfield, you’re toast. That’s what separates quarterbacks now, the ability to process all that information in a millisecond, make a good decision based off that snapshot and then to physically be able to get the ball to where you want it to go.”
*Ben Roethlisberger understood he spoke as someone who isn’t (or, at least, shouldn’t be) involved in any contact in practice. But the quarterback felt the need to speak up about the physical nature of Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers practices, both in training camp and even during the season when teams are allowed to have 14 contact workouts. Roethlisberger cited that as the cause for the many injuries that have plagued the Steelers so far. Roethlisberger also knows he has the gravitas to get away with challenging the head coach far better than anyone else in the locker room. “Like I said, I can’t complain too much because I’m not the one being hit,” Roethlisberger told reporters. “But I will stand up for the big boys.”
*Another team and more questions about Mario Williams’ effort. After the Miami Dolphins allowed the Tennessee to rush for 235 yards last Sunday, their defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph, reached his boiling point with the end who convinced some of his Buffalo teammates he quit on them last season. Williams had no tackles or sacks against the Titans. He has only seven tackles and a sack for the season. Joseph made it clear that Williams is too one-dimensional. “He’s got to play harder; he’s got to play better,” Joseph told reporters. “Obviously, he’s being allowed to rush the passer. But the games we’ve been in, it’s been more run-first, pass-second games. So for us to be a great rushing team, we have to earn the right. … If they want to rush more, stop the run more consistently.”
Don’t be surprised if …
… Dak Prescott keeps the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback job even after Tony Romo is cleared to return from the broken bone in his back. The Cowboys are performing too well with Prescott for the team to do anything to risk disrupting the tremendous chemistry he has built with the entire offense. Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones said plenty when he told reporters “there is nothing simple about this.” Although he’s right in saying it’s “a great thing to have this issue,” the Cowboys also need to be mindful that it is something they could easily screw up. Their offense has a new identity with Prescott behind center and there’s a real chance things could blow up if they make a change.
… The New York Giants are able to get on a roll after losing to two of the toughest teams on their schedule, Minnesota and Green Bay, the past two weeks. Their next six opponents have a combined record of 12-17 and have been outscored by 144 points.
… The Denver Broncos’ slide continues. The Falcons found ways to exploit the Broncos’ vaunted defense by getting their running backs heavily involved with helping to open up the passing game. Denver’s defenders tried dismissing it as something only the Falcons could do because of the great talent they have in their backfield, but the San Diego Chargers also were able to hit the Broncos for a big gain on the ground and Philip Rivers was efficient in throwing the ball.