Scott Boehm/AP


  • One year after a life-saving heart transplant, the long-time coach is feeling thankful and ready to return to the skies
By Tim Rohan
December 29, 2017

Sam Wyche answers a phone call from a complete stranger. Within a few moments, he is updating the person on the state of his heart.

As you might remember, the former Bengals coach was minutes away from dying last September; he was holed up in the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, waiting for a heart transplant. Shortly after that, our own Peter King wrote eloquently about Wyche and how he received that transplant just in time.

“I got up this morning at 3 a.m. to go to Charlotte for some check-up tests on my heart,” Wyche says now, a year later. “Everything is still A-plus. No rejection at all. But I’m getting my private pilots’ license renewed. You always have your license. Once you have it, you have it for life, but you’ve got to keep it current. I haven’t been doing that, being sick. So I was up in the hospital for a couple of hours, going from doctor to doctor, getting them to sign me off. And they did. Now I’m ready to hand it over to the FAA and see if they can find some excuse not to give it to me.”

Sam Wyche: A Thankful Heart

TIM ROHAN: You had a checkup today?

SAM WYCHE: Yeah, and it was perfect. They just called a couple of minutes ago and said, you have another record. I’ve had six [checkups] in a row, and no rejection. They said six-in-a-row, perfect.

ROHAN: How often do you have those checkups? Are you past the point where you have to even think about it?

WYCHE: Only one a year [from now on]. The next one is 12 months from now, unless I have some problems. Once a year, just a checkup, for two more years. Then they’re not even going to do that. I’d just give them a call if I have a problem after that.

ROHAN: How’s the heart been doing? How has your life been for the last year?

WYCHE: The heart has been great. I’ve been going up with an instructor and getting my communication skills and navigation skills sharpened to fly, and I’ve not had a problem at all. And then I go to the gym now. I used to ride a bicycle about three to four times a week, literally 25 to 27 miles.

Now I’m trying to get the upper body [back]. My sternum has healed now where I can lift weights with my upper body and get it back to where I want it. I’m doing good. I literally have not had one bad day. I am one blessed guy. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long [about 15 months] and not had one puny day.

Yesterday, I just got up, right in the middle of the ballgame. I got up and got the hedge trimmer. We’ve got hedges all over. We have a big yard, plenty to trim. And it didn’t even bother me. My arms were a little bit tired, and that was it. Just because I had to reach up over some hedges.

ROHAN: You told Peter King last year that you’d really like to find out who donated your heart. Do you know yet who the heart donor was?

WYCHE: No, not yet. That’s up to the donor—well, the donor family. As soon as they’ve grieved to the point where they’re ready to meet the person who’s received their loved one’s heart.

You don’t know where they live. You don’t know if it’s a man or a woman. You don’t know what they did for a living. How old they were. What part of the country they lived in. Anything. And they don’t know anything about me either, unless they picked up something on TV.

I can’t wait to meet them. I’ve written them several times [through the organ transplant clearing house], and they’ve written back twice to say they’re just not ready, and that’s about it. Just a one-sentence message. How they’re just not ready. I say to them, “I just want to make sure that you know that I’m ready when you are, and just say the word and I’ll come to you. If you [want] to listen to your loved one’s heart beat in me…”

Someone told me that, through the electrocardiogram you can record the beat of the heart on a tape, and then put that inside of a teddy bear or something like that. Then when they press a button, they can hear the heartbeat of their loved one. I think that is a great idea. I am going to do that before I meet the donor family.

ROHAN: You were hours from passing away last year, before the transplant came through. Have you changed the way you’ve lived since then?

WYCHE: I don’t know if there are things I’m doing differently. By the way, it was minutes, not hours. I was very close [to dying]. But everything seems more important. Things I may have been doing before, charity events—they were important to me then, but they’re more important now. Because I know the other end. The children, the families who benefit from those charities, I know how they feel now. I can relate because I’m one of those recipients now.

ROHAN: And you’re trying to renew your pilot’s license?

WYCHE: Yep. The last plane I had was called a Pea Baron—a beach craft, twin-engine, pressurized. Went 25,000 feet, so you could get above most weather. I flew that all over the country. Flew it into New York, when I was doing the studio show with NBC, after Mike Ditka left.

I just … it’s a passion. I love flying. I’m in training to get all of my skills back. I’ve got to get the communication skills back. The controller doesn’t want to mess around with you. He’ll give you an instruction and you’ve got to repeat it back really quick. He doesn’t want to mess around.

ROHAN: So you’re re-training yourself to fly?

WYCHE: It’s not re-training as much as recalling what you know. It has to be instant recall. Kind of like how a quarterback has to have instant recall with where he’s going to go with that ball when his primary receiver is covered. He doesn’t have time to think back to, “What was that note I wrote down in my book? Oh yeah, I’ve got to go to the tight end.” Too late—you’re sacked.

Well, this is, you’re in the air and he tells you to go 10 degrees to the West, and that’s to avoid hitting another airplane. You don’t have time to check your notebook on that one. You have to make that move right when he says it.

ROHAN: How long have you been flying?

WYCHE: I got my license in January of 1970. It was the offseason, and I was playing with the Cincinnati Bengals. The first offseason, I did graduate school. Then the second year, I finished that and started flying. Got my [pilot] license right in the snow. Cincinnati, Ohio. There was snow everywhere except for that runway. You could find it real quick.

ROHAN: Did you see what happened to Roy Halladay?

WYCHE: Yeah. You know, the plane he was flying, it’s a “Light Sport.” That’s the category of that plane. You really only have to have a Driver’s License to fly that. You don’t have to have a pilot’s license. It’s a single-seater, most of them are. It’s a fun plane. But he just got too close to that water. With the dynamics, you get a down burst of wind, anything, if you get too close to the ground or the water, you’re in trouble. That’s what happened to him.

ROHAN: Are you still careful about germs and how clean you have to be? Washing your hands?

WYCHE: Yeah, I do. I use the little antiseptic, Purell-type liquids. But actually, Boomer Esiason’s son Gunnar has a product that I like that’s even better. It’s a foam and it doesn’t drip or anything. It sterilizes your hands.

But you know, my diet is the same. I haven’t gone back to my [pre-transplant] diet. I still eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and nuts. Bananas and so forth. And then the exercise every day. I ask that heart to extend itself every day, to keep it strong. And I plan to do that as long as I can.

I’ll be 73 on January 5. I say that only because I’m hoping that people send presents. [laughs] January 5 I’ll be 73 years old, and I feel like I’m in my late 30s. I honestly do. Not only my heart—my legs, my arms. I don’t feel unsteady at all. It’s a miracle.

ROHAN: Did they say how much time the heart buys you?

WYCHE: Well, different people, different times. But every time I go, everybody asks, when did you get your heart? Every time I hear someone else say a double digit—10, 12, 15, 20 years ago—I tell them, boy I love to hear those double digits!

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