If we judge by Wyche himself, personality does seem to crystallize early. He settles into a seat on his cool, screened side porch and recalls growing up in Atlanta, the son of a salesman and a secretary. "My younger brother Bubba and I competed at everything," he says. "Bubba made all-state in football, basketball and baseball." By significant contrast, Sam matured late and rose no higher than third-string quarterback for North Fulton High. "I was just kind of a guy on the club," he says. "A worker, a classic overachiever."
His dogged nature kept him at sports until his body finally came around. In the fall of 1962 he was a walk-on at Furman. He was the starting quarterback by the end of his sophomore year. "I was big and far from good," says Wyche, who usually includes a few sandbags among his self-assessments. "The coach was Bob King. I remember him saying, 'Work, and you'll play in the pros,' but that was far from my mind while sitting in the Poteat Hall stairwell practicing my Spanish sentences, worrying about flunking out."
As a freshman he met Jane, a junior at the time. She later taught school in Pickens, S.C., while waiting for him to graduate. "We were to be married in December 1965," says Sam. "But I broke my back against The Citadel. Margaret, Jane's mother, said, 'I'll wheel him down the aisle.'
"I made it on my own," says Wyche, "with a brace."
Because of the fractured vertabra, Wyche was shunned in the NFL draft. After graduating in 1966, he played during the summer with the Wheeling (W.Va.) Ironmen of the Continental Football League. "He played safety. "Billy Canty [a former Furman star] got me the tryout."
Coaches often slip into soft-eyed reverie when listing the schools and jobs that led them toward the primal roar of the big arena. Wyche cannot retrace his path without also delivering up the name of every man who passed him along, hand-to-hand, like a bucket on the way to a fire. Listen to the constant lapping of names:
"I went to business school at South Carolina, where I was a graduate assistant to Paul Dietzel. Jackie Powers got me that. I worked the scout team with Lou Holtz. I'd be the opposing quarterback. When pro scouts would visit, I'd jump in front of them and say, 'Look, I'll hit that phone pole.' And I would. Holtz knew Rick Forzano on the Bengal staff. He finagled a quarterback try-out for me. I made the cab squad."
Wyche looks up. "It's all a spider's web," he says, "all contacts, connections."
Wyche thus acknowledges football's matrix of acquaintanceship through which athletes, coaches and even writers inextricably swing and crawl, everybody making the wires hum with the names of the brave, the quick, the possessed. "I was 20 for 25 in the first game I ever played for the Bengals, against Houston in 1968," he says. "Then Nick Buoniconti broke my ankle in Miami, and that was that year. We drafted Greg Cook in 1969, and I was backup."
The sound of football names grows comforting, like a creek through a yard: "My third year we had Virgil Carter. I was backup. We won our last seven and the division. Bill Walsh, who was the quarterback coach, had Jane and me over for dinner. 'By the way,' said Bill, 'there's a good chance we're going to draft this kid out of Augustana.' "