Sam Wyche guides his Chevrolet with the garbage in the trunk through blocks of dreary urban warehouses. He snakes around the crumbling foundations of an elevated highway and swings left, and, boom, he is staring at an unexpected expanse of emerald turf, neatly framed by a cedar hedge. The hop from suffocating inner city to sanctuary is so abrupt that it is almost disorienting.
This is Spinney Field, the Cincinnati Bengal practice facility, and Wyche enjoys the jolt with which it reveals itself. "A great pulpit out there," he says, acknowledging football's hold on millions of imaginations. "All the world's heartache and excitement."
He pops the trunk, lifts out the family garbage and drops it into the Bengals' dumpster. "I don't know why we can't use our neighborhood garbage service," he says. The chore seems evidence of his contention that delegating responsibility isn't easy for him: "I love the idea of something physically completed, by me."
On this summer Saturday the Cincinnati players have been invited to Spinney Field to pick up their AFC championship rings. A hearty Jostens man is arranging $200,000 worth of diamond rings, watches, pendants and framed posters. Wyche is early, convinced that the players will be lined up. None is. The rings are huge. Offensive tackle Anthony Munoz's is the largest, at size 18: A quarter passes through it. The engraving inside each ring reads FINISH EVERYTHING.
Studying his, Wyche says, "Doesn't it seem, uh, like there should be two N's in Cincinnati? I mean a double N in the middle. Isn't that odd? You live here for years and still you aren't sure." The Jostens man has blanched. He peers at the ring, sees the spelling is correct, reddens with relief and looks up into Wyche's radiantly bland poker face.
During the next half hour only a handful of players and a dog come by. Wyche takes heart. "They're sure not living in the past," he says.
Wyche drives to his home, which is a restored 1895 carriage house in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming. The lot is heavily wooded. His wife, Jane, explains that Sam has to ferry garbage to work because raccoons spread it across the lawn if it's left out. Cats abound. One, named Ghetto Swinger, or G.S. or Gus, has a past. "I took the kids through the town's Over-the-Rhine area so they'd appreciate what they have," says Wyche. His son, Zak, is a freshman defensive end at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. Daughter Kerry is a junior cheerleader at Wyoming High.
"They always apologize to their friends for how their dad is taking them through the worst part of town," says Wyche. "Anyway, we saw a boy spinning a cat by its tail. We stopped and the kid gladly gave it up, all wet and hissing. Now everyone leaves stray cats here."
Wyche is equally, sometimes famously, protective on the job. He has turned away a process server pounding on the locker-room door before a game. Another time, he took the side of a player found to have a gun in his car. "I said something that wasn't complimentary to the police, about whether there was real reason for them to search, and had a nice visit from the police chief. I get myself into these things. My frankness overtakes tact."
But he does not lash himself over it. "You reflect," he says. "You wish you could have handled a situation differently. Then you find yourself in the same one, and you're behaving the same as the first time. Don't people pretty well have fixed personalities?"