tennessee3

The Good Memories Start With Frank Wycheck's Head In My Garage

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Sometime last year, I pulled into my garage and saw what looked like a weird crack in the wall in front of me. I filled with dread over the idea that I had a big issue that would cost a whole bunch of money to fix and got out of the car grudgingly, slowly making my way over to assess the damage.

It was no damage, just the back of Frank Wycheck’s head!Frank Wycheck

For a home game against the Falcons in Oct. of 2015, the Titans had some of those giant cutout heads in the crowd and Frank’s was one of them.

I managed to commandeer one and it wound up in my garage. If I remember correctly, he faced out for a time, but as friendly as we were, I quickly realized it was a little too much to face him every time I pulled in, and I flipped him around and then forgot he was there. The thick cardboard edge against the wall later fooled me into thinking it was a fissure.

The irony is, I actually did want to see Frank more. All of his friends did. And outside of work for a long time he’d say, "Sure, buddy I’ll see you there" and then most often no-show. His deflecting grief for it was simply just part of the dance of (kind of) being in Frank’s circle.

Which could be a wonderful thing. That is the central piece of my sadness after Frank died on Saturday at 52. [Obituary here.]

We last texted in mid-November. He wanted to know how deep in rebuild mode the Titans were. Previously I’d checked in in September when I heard he moved to Chattanooga, to be near his two daughters and three grandchildren. He said then he intended to be at the Titans' alumni game, Oct. 29 against the Falcons. But when I circled back to connect in advance of that, his plans had changed, he wouldn’t be making it.

How great would that have been, if one of the most popular Titans was back one last time to hear the cheers?

I always found him to be one of the most relatable players I've ever encountered. Part of that was that we were roughly the same age, and grew up not too far from each other, him in Northeast Philadelphia and me in Central New Jersey.

But there was a lot more to it.

Frank WycheckWhen he made a play, he went back to the huddle grateful for another snap where he hadn’t messed up and that cycle kept him going. I haven’t encountered many three-time Pro Bowlers who function that way and mean it.

Qualities like that created hard-wire connections to fans and friends. For a young reporter, an accountable guy who understood my job was a treasure.

He and his then-wife welcomed me into their home a few days after the Music City Miracle for a big story I did for The Tennessean, headlined "Mr. Clutch," and I’ve had a fondness for all of them ever since.

I had covered Frank for five seasons when I had the first and only social get-together with an active player I’ve ever had when he and his wife invited me and my wife-to-be out for dinner and drinks in Waikiki. The T-shirt I bought from Duke’s Waikiki is still in the ratty rotation of stuff I sleep in.

He was retired, I’m pretty sure, by the time I saw him get his Hulk makeup all over his sheets at their phenomenal Halloween party. (I was Dr. Evil; My wife Frau Farbissina.) And he was single by the time my son swam at his pool and we enjoyed a summer afternoon with much of “The Wake Up Zone” crew in his backyard.

His radio personality was spectacular when he was on his game and being part of his show eventually helped me launch my own with two other colleagues.

A guy who talked about sitting home watching the History Channel sold himself as a life coach. He didn’t know that Peppermint Patty from the Peanuts was a girl. He beat the late Mark Howard, overzealous about his fitness improvements, in a YMCA Walk-Off for the ages. In a softball challenge, he whiffed several times in Hendersonville against female fast-pitch players and he struggled too with Little League World Series hero Brock Myers on a cold day at Davidson Academy.

We went round and round with the idea of Second Life -- a video game/virtual reality we spun into an excuse to pick each other apart -- making each other thinner, funnier, more timely and on and on. I think the audience liked it. I know we loved it, because we laughed through it, uncontrollably at times.

At the 1999 or 2000 Pro Bowl, both of which I covered for the Tennessean, the shoddy AFC locker room had a long narrow table filled with Pro Bowl helmets. I think they cost the players $100, and Frank was short. He asked me if I could lend him $50 and I did.

We both forgot about it for some time and then when I remembered it, it became convenient radio fodder. He of course didn’t recall it at all. I was trying to calculate interest.

Over time, he talked very candidly about the effect he expected his football concussions would have on him, including fears that suicide might be something that entered his thinking the way it had for others who’d had similar backgrounds with head injuries. He struggled with back issues. He talked about social anxiety.

He skipped work a lot at the radio station. We wanted to be sympathetic to his symptoms but also wondered if there were days he could have made it in. A lot of us tried to talk to him, to get closer, but he’d say he was OK, and thank us for the concern.

Early in 2017, I wrote this piece wondering how we could help him. From mutual friends I've spoken to, I don't know that anyone found a way, but I hope his final months with family in Chattanooga were good ones.

A dejected Frank Wycheck of the Tennessee Titans stares out from the end zone as the St. Louis Rams celebrate their Super Bowl XXXIV victory in Atlanta Jan. 30, 2000. Super Bowl
© Bill Steber / The Tennessean, Nashville Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC

I don't know where he was when he went to bed Friday night or when he got up Saturday morning, life-wise or health-wise. 

Saturday he had a terrible fall and by the time he was found, it was too late.

His family is honoring his wishes and will work with experts for ongoing brain injury (TBI) and CTE research. 

He was certain tests and research would show his football life had consequences, that there was a trade-off to the game he loved that produced the cheers and popularity. That ties me in a knot.

And so I'm thinking instead of the $100 I lost to Frank when Bruce Springsteen decided to play Super Bowl halftime and how he was a sucker for pro wrestling and how "his" guys are the guys I called when I needed TVs mounted.

Outside of his spot in my garage, Frank's got a presence up in the opposite far corner of my house too, in my underused workout room. One day when I showed up at The Zone he gave me a beautiful framed, autographed Kuharsky megaphonepicture of Graig Nettles at bat. Nettles is my all-time favorite athlete.

The gift was for no reason, out of nowhere.

Not far away is the only significant piece of Titans' memorabilia I have from 27 years of covering the franchise. There were not a lot of great pictures taken of the Music City Miracle, but a good while after the Titans' glory moment, someone with the team slid me a large photo of Kevin Dyson after he'd already slowed down, his two primary escorts falling in behind him right before he scored. 

In the triangle of space between them, I'm a little blurry on the sideline between them, my mouth agape.

Presuming I'd never be in a similar position again, I asked someone if they'd have Lorenzo Neal, Dyson and Frank sign it. 

Frank Wycheck 89 will always be around.

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