These aren’t the happiest of times for the man largely responsible for one of the unhappiest moments in the history of the Buffalo Bills.
Frank Wycheck said he struggles badly with what he’s certain are the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) resulting from the many concussions he suffered during 11 seasons as an NFL player.
The former Tennessee Titans tight end still relishes his pivotal role in the team’s wild-card playoff victory against the Bills after the 1999 season. The win, dubbed the Music City Miracle, catapulted the Titans to the Super Bowl and began a 17-year postseason drought that the Bills finally ended last season.
But just as with all the highlights of his career, Wycheck’s joyful reflection of his lateral on a kickoff that produced the winning touchdown is tempered by bouts of severe depression, debilitating headaches and memory loss.
“It’s a constant battle each and every day for me,” Wycheck, 46, said. “But I'm trying like heck to just keep my head above water. I hate when people say, ‘Well, everyone forgets where they were,’ or something like that. I just know every day that there’s a lot of the short-term memory I struggle with and a lot of long-term memories, too.
“It's just one of those things that’s scary. I knew that these days were coming when I retired at 33. And, unfortunately, my predictions have been coming true.”
Last year, he lost his job as a longtime analyst on the Titans Radio Network. A divorced father of daughters who are 27 and 21 years old, Wycheck said he pretty much only ventures out of his Nashville, Tenn., home to play golf and attend Predators hockey games. He plans to be at his residence Sunday to watch his former team take on the Bills at New Era Field.
“I have a problem with isolation and social anxiety and panic attacks and stuff like that,” Wycheck said. “That limits my activity.”
As a member of the Washington Redskins, who made him a sixth-round draft pick from Maryland in 1993 and released him in 1995 after a failed attempt to move him to fullback; the Houston Oilers, who signed him in ’95; and the Tennessee Oilers/Titans, Wycheck caught 505 passes for 5,126 yards and 28 touchdowns.
But he’s best remembered for what happened with 16 seconds left in that Jan. 8, 2000, playoff game and the Bills, thanks to a 41-yard Steve Christie field goal, holding a 16-15 lead. Christie sent a bloop kickoff down the middle that Lorenzo Neal caught before handing off to Wycheck, who threw across the field to Kevin Dyson, who ran down the sideline 75 yards for a touchdown. The officials ruled that it was a legal lateral, the call stood after a review, and another indelible nightmare for Bills fans was born.
In this week’s “One-on-One Coverage,” Wycheck spent some time on the phone with The Buffalo News discussing his role in the play called “Home Run Throwback” and its impact on the Titans and Bills, as well as the price he continues to pay for his football career.
Buffalo News: When the Bills made the playoffs last January to break that 17-year drought, you tweeted your congratulations. What motivated you to do that?
Frank Wycheck: It's because I was a fan of those teams — Jim Kelly and those guys, Marv Levy and his teams. I got to know a few of those players over the years, and I just have respect. I'm a blue-collar guy. I'm from Philadelphia, just growing up from humble beginnings, and I just feel like that I'd be a guy that would want to play in Buffalo. It's the same type of situation, the same type of people that I feel like that I grew up around. I pull for cities and teams like that.
BN: You brought up Philly, where you played tailback at Archbishop Ryan High School. You're two years older than Sean McDermott, who went to La Salle College High School, one of your rivals. Do you remember going against him?
FW: You know what? You're the first one that's ever brought that up. I'll tell you what, he would remember me a lot more than I would remember him. Actually, we lost to them my senior year, so he definitely has the one-up, but we didn't play well that day.
BN: What do you know about Sean?
FW: I just know of him (working) under (late Eagles defensive coordinator) Jim Johnson, that he was a disciple of him and his scheme. But I didn't even know he went to La Salle and that we might have butted heads.
BN: How does it feel to have a long career, which included three Pro Bowl appearances, defined by a single play?
FW: It kind of takes away, in some ways, from what I accomplished on the field, which was miraculous in itself. I wasn't supposed to play a down in the NFL, but was able to work my way to 11 years and be a productive player. But, yeah, it's a special thing to be known for that. I'm not going to deny that.
BN: Of course, to this day, every Bills fan and every person who was part of the team then insists it was illegal and the officials got it wrong. Wade Phillips still calls it the “Music City Mistake.” What do you say about that?
FW: I know (it was legal) because I threw it. And I know the action of how I threw it and how I flung it backwards. It was close, if you look down the line. I mean, I think MIT professors or physics departments went through it and diagrammed the whole thing. And, listen, that's a tough thing to get over.
It's like the same thing with us in the Super Bowl (XXXIV, which the Titans lost to the Rams by a touchdown). I think about the Super Bowl every day almost. What things could have went right? What things could have went wrong? And all that stuff. So I understand Wade Phillips' point of view and those players, but, listen, it was the correct call, it was the correct play, it was executed the right way, and we benefited from it.
The way I threw the ball has been the biggest question from Buffalo fans' standpoint. I understand their frustration, because of the way it looked. I knew it was supposed to go backwards, but the way I threw it, it was almost like turning a double play. I kind of just jumped and flung it backward, but then I fell back. And Dyson was at one place and then went backwards to catch the ball. So it was a very deceiving play.
BN: Last year, you went public with your belief that you suffer from CTE. What prompted that?
FW: I’ve had doctors that have confirmed (I have CTE symptoms). I haven't been diagnosed with dementia or ALS or anything like that, but it's just the symptoms of CTE. It’s basically post-concussion syndrome for the rest of your life. Not just me, but a lot of guys that I've reached out to and people have reached out to me that have very similar issues going on.
BN: You’ve said there are times you'll walk into a room and not remember why.
FW: Oh, yeah, that happens frequently. Just little things, like if someone says something to me in one sentence and two minutes later I totally forget what the subject matter is. And that's embarrassing at times. I try to put some humor around it as well, but then I know, deep down inside, for me that's a scary thought.
I try to exercise, I try to keep in shape, but at times it just gets to be too much when you overexert yourself and the symptoms kind of pop up again. It's a struggle. I don't know if golf gets the heart rate up, but I try to play some golf here and there.
BN: As challenging as your memory issues might be, you seem to have vivid recollections of the Music City Miracle.
FW: Yeah, because I think it's talked about or asked about a lot. I was on the radio for 14 years, longer than I played. I've explained that (lateral) and that's been brought up millions of times, so I definitely remember that sort of stuff. But it's just the little things that kind of just pass by. It's hard to explain. Everyone forgets things, but I think for me it's times 10, times 20.
But unless I'm asked about it, I don't really dwell on it. It's just when it's brought up, I think about all the good things that came from it. That's special. Just the fans. The biggest takeaway for me is our fans and the stories and people leaving the stadium (after Christie's field goal) and then coming back in, people hugging people that they didn't know and they became friends to this day. I mean, those are the things that I really am very proud of and excited about. And just that team and the way we came together in a critical moment, when it was all on the line. We all did our jobs and the coaches did a great job.
It wasn't just Lorenzo to me to Dyson. There were eight other guys on the field. That's what brings you back whenever this week comes up, no matter what the records are.
BN: Knowing what you know now about how you believe the game has impacted your quality of life, if you had to do it all over again, would you still play football?
FW: I would definitely do it all over again. Experience. Relationships. Priceless.