Sam Wyche was a few days from dying.
The former NFL head coach knew it, and his doctors did too. The heart that had been slowly failing him for 15 years had gone into a rapid decline. All the good options had vanished except for one – a heart transplant.
Wyche had been thoroughly counseled by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson – a heart transplant survivor himself – about what would happen next. The problem was that there was no heart available to give Wyche.
Wyche, 71, understood what it was like not to have much time left. His most famous achievement as a coach had come when he popularized a full-time “no-huddle” offense with the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1980s, and got them to the Super Bowl with it.
In the “no-huddle,” the Bengals called every play at the line of scrimmage, stressing out defenses who did not have time to substitute. Defensive players sometimes faked injuries in a vain attempt to stop Cincinnati drives.
Now Wyche felt like one of those defensive coordinators he had delighted in tormenting.
A doctor at Carolinas Medical Center came to the coach’s hospital room in Charlotte on Sept. 12 and gave Wyche and his wife of 50 years, Jane, the bad news.
It was about 11 a.m.
They were about to hear a death sentence.
There’s nothing more we can do, the doctor said. We still don’t have a heart for a transplant. You aren’t a good candidate for a heart pump, and you have nearly gotten to the point where you wouldn’t survive a transplant surgery anyway. We’re going to send you back home to South Carolina tomorrow and let the hospice nurses take care of you for “as long as necessary.”
As long as necessary.
Those were the four words that kept ringing in Wyche’s brain. He knew what they meant.
He needed to get ready to die.
‘A second chance at life’
In Pickens, S.C., on this Thanksgiving Day, the Wyche family will pull up folding chairs next to the television, stuff themselves with food and watch football. There will be grandchildren running around and family friends sharing the table. In many ways, it won’t be much different from what a lot of families experience.
In one way, it will be very different. Sam Wyche plans to be at the table with someone else’s heart beating in his chest.
“I’m thankful for so many things,” Wyche says. “But mostly I’m grateful for a second chance at life I got from an organ donor. Someone else had the foresight to say that if anything ever happens to me, the last gift I’m going to give on this planet is the gift of life for somebody else.”
At 5 p.m. on Sept. 12, about six hours after Wyche had gotten the bad news, three things happened within minutes of each other.
In Cincinnati, two separate high school football practices ended. Wyche’s son coached one of the teams. His grandson, Sammy, was the quarterback for the other.
Both Wyche’s son and his grandson independently called their teams together at the end of their practices in a huddle. Although it had not been planned this way, each decided to pray publicly at that time for Wyche.
In Charlotte, 460 miles away, the same doctor who had broken the bad news walked back into Sam Wyche’s hospital room again.
We just received word that you are getting a heart, the doctor said. We are going to do the transplant surgery as soon as it gets here.
By 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 13, Wyche was in surgery.
‘Then you fall off the curb’
Wyche has had heart issues since 2001 – he was officially diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy – but they got worse in late August. There had been a storm at his farmhouse in Pickens, S.C., and he had revved up his chainsaw and gone to work cutting fallen limbs into more manageable sizes. Still in good shape, Wyche was 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds and accustomed to manual labor.
But after he moved the limbs to the brush pile, Wyche started walking up a slight incline to his house.
“I gave out of breath,” Wyche says, “and it was only a 15-yard walk.”
His wife noticed his ragged breathing, and a series of doctor visits followed. Wyche saw his regular cardiologist and was quickly referred to Charlotte and the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute at Carolinas Medical Center.
“Coach Wyche is incredibly strong and healthy for his age, so he was able to tolerate having heart failure for a lot longer than most,” says Sanjeev Gulati, the cardiologist at CMC who shepherded Wyche’s care. “And this is not unusual. You have it for a long time. Then you fall off the curb and quickly go downhill.”
Gulati and his team decided Wyche wasn’t a good candidate for a heart pump. A heart transplant would be his last chance. In those situations, the doctors offer to let the patient talk with someone who has gone through a successful heart transplant and come out the other side. At Sanger – the only heart transplant center in the region – they do about 25 heart transplants a year. One of the most well-known people to receive a new heart there is the Panthers’ Richardson, who had a successful transplant in 2009 at age 72.
‘Like changing a tire’
Richardson came to talk to Wyche for the first time on Sept. 1, a few hours before the Panthers hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in their last exhibition.
“He walked into the room in his suit and tie,” Wyche recalls. “It’s about three hours away from their last preseason game. They’ve got these nice comfortable chairs to sit in. But he didn’t want to sit in those. He said, ‘Move your feet over. I want to sit on the edge of the bed.’”
Wyche moved his legs, and Richardson sat down.
“He says, ‘I want to tell you what to expect,’” Wyche says. “He said for the doctors, this is like changing a tire. What he was saying was they know exactly what to do ... they’ve done it before.”
Wyche liked the analogy. When a heart arrived – and on that day Wyche was still almost two weeks away from getting one – the doctors would be his NASCAR pit crew.
Now 80, Richardson rarely does interviews. But he did consent to answer several emailed questions about Wyche for this story.
“No. 1, I remember that Sam felt like he knew what he had in front of him and really didn’t,” Richardson says. “The real challenge is after surgery is over with the loss of appetite, and I explained he would have to force himself to eat and drink and do what the doctors said to do.”
After a while, Richardson left for the game. But the next day, Richardson was back again.
The first visit had been previously scheduled; the second time the Panthers owner just popped in.
Again, the Panthers owner sat on the edge of the bed, and again he told Wyche he wanted to make sure he understood how important it was to try to avoid a post-operative infection and to eat and drink.
“It was like a bedtime story,” Wyche says. “And he was using an old coach’s trick, too – repetition – to get his point across.”
Says Richardson: “He needed to understand that surgery is not the big part. It’s after – getting energy and strength back.”
‘Save a person’s life’
Who is Wyche’s donor? Whose heart beats inside his body now?
The former coach would love to know the answer. Wyche refers to his donor as a “he,” but the coach is guessing. He will only find out if the donor’s family wants to know, and he realizes that family is coping with a recent death.
“Obviously, when there’s been good news for the recipient, there’s been some bad news for the donor,” Wyche says. “So I’m the grateful one. And one day I would love to be able to thank them personally. But both sides have to be comfortable and ready for that and right now they’re not quite ready. I understand that.”
Wyche was able to write an anonymous letter of thanks, one that could not include any biographical details. He sent it Saturday to a clearinghouse that will mail it to the donor’s family.
In the meantime, Wyche says he has found a new purpose.
“You feel you’ve been spared for a reason,” Wyche says. “Now the search starts – what is that reason that God gave you another chance in life? Because that is exactly what has happened.”
Wyche says he “doesn’t want to waste another day” and wants to spend as much of the time he has left as possible promoting organ donation.
His basic pitch: “Ask yourself: “If I had a chance to save a person’s life, would I do it?” Sure you would – if you had the presence of mind to think it through way ahead of time.”
Registration is free and can be done when you get or renew a driver’s license or at websites such as registerme.org.
“It is so easy,” Wyche says. “And it saves lives all the time, just like it saved mine.”
‘You don’t live in Cleveland!’
Wyche has always squeezed the juice out of living. A native of Atlanta, he was barely recruited and walked on with the Furman football team. He had earned a scholarship as a quarterback and later played both semi-pro football and in the NFL as a backup. Wyche was a member of the Washington team that lost to the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII, a game that completed the Dolphins’ 17-0 season of 1972.
Wyche took the $40,000 he earned in bonus money that season and used it as seed money for “Sam Wyche Sports World,” a sporting goods chain he opened up with an old college roommate at Furman. (Richardson did much the same thing, albeit with a smaller bonus, when he was franchising his first Hardee’s restaurant.)
Wyche’s first sporting goods store was in Greenville, S.C., and he had a dozen of them at one time. Says Richardson, who had followed Wyche’s career since Wyche had played for Furman and Richardson a few years earlier for nearby Wofford in Spartanburg: “We were one of his first customers.”
Wyche’s former assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, Bill Walsh, brought Wyche to San Francisco in the late 1970s to help coach the passing game. The 49ers soon drafted a quarterback named Joe Montana.
“The best way to coach Joe was to fold your arms and back away,” Wyche says of the hall of fame quarterback.
Wyche won a Super Bowl as an assistant with San Francisco following the 1981 season and soon became Cincinnati’s head coach. With quarterback Boomer Esiason running his no-huddle offense to perfection, Wyche directed the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII. Cincinnati lost 20-16 to San Francisco on Jan. 22, 1989, when Montana led a 92-yard touchdown drive in the final three minutes.
Known as an innovator, Wyche also had a reputation as saying whatever he thought. Once at a 1989 home game in Cincinnati, the game kept being delayed because fans upset with several officials’ calls were throwing snowballs onto the field.
Wyche was handed a house microphone to try to help defuse the situation. He used a jab at the Bengals’ hated rival, the Cleveland Browns, to do so.
“Will the next person that sees anybody throw anything onto this field, point them out, and get them out of here?” Wyche roared. “You don’t live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati!”
Wyche would eventually coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1990s and also work as a network TV analyst on NFL games. The Panthers, among many other teams, routinely employ a version of his no-huddle offense today. After he left the NFL, he also served on his local town council in Pickens, S.C., and as a volunteer assistant coach for two different high school football teams.
‘A star patient’
Wyche knows he has been very lucky. After getting a heart at the last minute, he also has had a fairly quick recovery.
“I’d call him a star patient,” Gulati, the cardiologist, says. Wyche started off walking 30 minutes a day and now has progressed to biking 15 miles per day. He has taken Richardson’s advice on eating and drinking and has steered clear of infection.
“I feel three times better than I did before the surgery,” Wyche says.
Wyche says his sense of wonder about life has returned.
The view of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside his house? He had seen it so many times he had basically started ignoring it before the surgery. Now he takes a look – a real look – and is awed by its grandeur. His two children and six grandchildren? He vows to see them more.
“It’s a reality we are all going to die,” Wyche says. “But it’s Thanksgiving. And what a joy it is to be alive.”
Want to be an organ donor?
Former NFL coach Sam Wyche, the recipient of a donated heart, wants to increase the level of organ donations and urges everyone to consider donating.
“It doesn’t cost a dime, and you can save someone’s life,” Wyche says.
According to LifeShare Of The Carolinas, the national average for licensed drivers who have designated themselves as organ donors is 53 percent. In North Carolina, it is 54 percent. In South Carolina, it is 44 percent. Fewer men register as donors compared to women.
There are nearly 120,000 people in the U.S. awaiting an organ donation of some type, more than enough to fill any football stadium in the country. On average, 21 people in the U.S. die every day while awaiting an organ transplant that might save their life.