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Frank Wycheck and an inside look at the 'Music City Miracle'
One play can define an NFL tight end. Yeah, Wycheck will live with this everlasting fame. The longtime Tennessee Titan relives his 'Miracle' home-run throwback.
To the other extreme, it’s not fair. One play can swiftly define the life of any NFL player. A few seconds and… that is how everyone remembers you. If you’ve already dug into “The Blood and Guts,” you’ve read just how much a drop in the Super Bowl XIII affected Jackie Smith.
Smith was an all-time great. Far, far more than those 5.5 seconds in 1979.
Then, there’s a player like Frank Wycheck. His career was also far more than a singular play. The longtime Tennessee Titans tight end caught 505 balls for 5,126 yards with 28 touchdowns as one of the top ends of the 90s. But, of course, it’s the “Music City Miracle” that’s become synonymous with his name. Wycheck lateraled the ball to Kevin Dyson — Forward? Backward? You be the judge below — and Dyson took it to the end zone to stun the Buffalo Bills in the 1999 Wild Card Round.
For a full oral history on the game, here’s a piece I wrote for The Buffalo News six years ago. Emotions run high on both sides.
That Titans team came within one yard of tying the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.
Here’s Wycheck on what it’s like to be defined by one play.
How often are you asked about the Music City Miracle?
Wycheck: I get asked about it a lot. I actually moved from Nashville about three years ago up to Philly. This is my hometown. So meeting people up here, it’s brought up more. I think it’s always going to be asked about and joked about. People always say it was a forward pass just to get under my skin. It’s all good. You knew at the time — a lot of us said it — that it’s going to be great when you’re older and you can share it with your kids. I have a grandson now. So when he gets to the age that he can see it, that’s what everyone was thinking of with that play. It’d last a long time.
When you play a professional sport, there’s a good chance one moment can define you as a human being for the rest of your life. It can be something bad. It can be something amazing.
Wycheck: I was fortunate to be in that primary position. It’s something that we prepared for. That’s the beauty of it — we were ready for it.
When was the play first implemented? Who thought of it?
Wycheck: It started early in training camp. Jeff Fisher was a coach who never let any situation that could come up in a football game… he went over all that. All the time. And then we practiced it, so we had to be prepared for it. Al Lowry was our special teams coach, and he was the architect of it. He brought it to the special teams. Instead of running the Stanford-Cal thing, it was more of an organized play that could turn into a Stanford-Cal play. Al Lowry brought it up in special teams and they thought of me because we’d play these reindeer games of throwing up the football with Bruce Matthews and stuff like that. So they trusted me to throw it. By the way, I finished my career with a perfect passer rating. Not many people can say that. Just kidding.
So we practiced it like once a week during situation football. And then we did it during the season every Saturday during the walkthroughs. We would go through different scenarios. We were prepared for it. There was no hesitation when it came up in that wild card game.
Your arm. Did you play quarterback back in the day—at any point? Was it just throwing it around with your buddies that gave you a good arm?
Wycheck: I was a baseball player. I was a catcher. I was a catcher from age 5 to high school, and then in high school, I played a couple years of baseball. But I was concentrating on football. Les Steckel saw that I could throw it. He allowed me to throw it in the games with double passes and all that. So they had a lot of trust in me throwing it.
You threw a touchdown that season, right?
Wycheck: I believe two.
Yeah. One in ’99 and one in 2000.
Wycheck: The ’99 one was the big one, a 61-yarder. I forget a lot of things but I remember certain things.
Les Steckel had a big role in Shannon Sharpe’s rise.
Wycheck: Yeah, he always talked to me about Shannon and coaching him up. Especially with Steve being young, he knew that the tight end would be his best friend until he opened things up a few years later.
Before we get to that play, you probably don’t get asked enough about your tight end ability. How did you become the go-to guy for Steve McNair? I talked to Ben Coates, and he said the same thing about Drew Bledsoe. That was his security blanket — he went to him repeatedly.
Wycheck: I think we had this special rapport. We used to call it “basketball on grass,” with uncovering and the scramble drill. Steve was a big scrambler. Like guys do today. You have to go one way, stop, and come back across the field. We were always looking for each other. I led the team in receptions five years in a row, which was pretty cool. With the Music City Miracle, I get that. But I blocked for Eddie George, a 10,000-yard rusher. I was a fullback. There’s a lot of blocking. We were a running team that played good defense. Yeah, I did a lot of things on offense that Jerry Rome, Les Steckel, Mike Heimerdinger allowed me to do.
What gravitated you toward the tight end position? With your personality, what gravitated you toward that contour of the field where anything goes?
Wycheck: I was a tailback all the way up through high school. And then switched to a tight end, H-back offense my second year in college. It was perfect fit for me, a “move” tight end who could block. I never blocked before, really, until I got to college. So it just morphed to a position where I could be an on-the-line tight end and be able to split out like guys do today.
It can be hard to find tight ends today who do it all.
Wycheck: If Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle had a baby, I think it’d be me.
So you have this play. You’re running it. You know it could come up. When Steve Christie makes that kick for Buffalo, what’s going through your mind?
Wycheck: It all started in the huddle because there was a lot of confusion in the huddle. The guys who had practiced the play, Derrick Mason, had a concussion. Then his backup, Anthony Dorsett, was cramping. So that’s how Kevin Dyson got thrown in the mix. He never practiced the play. Fisher and Al Lowry grabbed him and told him what to do on the fly. Jackie Harris was another great tight end on the team. He was great. Lorenzo Neal, we got to talking, and they both came up to me and said, “Listen, if I get this F’ing ball, you better come get it because I’m not F’ing throwing it.” Normally how the play works, the front line opens up a gap so it makes Christie think, “Oh, no one’s in front of me. I can just squib it.” I would always be in that gap further back. So, that didn’t go as planned because he kicked it high and short. Lorenzo is not known for having hands like Odell Beckham. So he catches it — and if you watch the play — he doesn’t even look back. He just kind of puts the ball back. Reaches it back. And I just went and got it. That’s the communication you need on that type of play because it’s chaos. You know? But everyone did their job. I always laugh because did they think I was going to run for a touchdown? I wasn’t going to do that. I just kind of jumped to turn a double play. I didn’t even know who I was throwing it to. I was just throwing it to an area. Like a blur. Sure enough, I didn’t hit him between the numbers but “Dice” made a great play. Sure enough, he took it to the house.
You really didn’t even see him at all?
Wycheck: It’s weird. To be honest, Dyson wasn’t even the one who was supposed to catch the ball. He was supposed to be a trailer. So I was supposed to throw it to Isaac Byrd, but he kind of came up and tried to field it. But he fell. Here’s the deal. I don’t want to get too technical on you, but how the play was supposed to work: You throw it to a guy, who was supposed to be Derrick Mason and there was a trailer just in case Buffalo didn’t take the cheese and go toward me. So if I throw it to Dyson and he’s in trouble, now he pitches it back to someone and now we’re starting the whole “pitchy pitchy woo woo” that Scott Van Pelt always says on TV. That’s how the full play was supposed to work. You get in trouble. You pitch it back. And then there was another guy across the field who he was supposed to chuck it to. So there was another three steps that never came to fruition because the play worked out.
Byrd was No. 83. He went up for whatever reason? He was out of position?
Wycheck: He was out of position. I think he thought Lorenzo was going to let that go. It’d be nice to have a reunion to talk about it.
So thank god you had a trailer. If you didn’t have a trailer, you would’ve been throwing it to nobody?
Wycheck: Yeah. But I was just trusting that someone was going to be there. I think it was a blur thing. But it was a blind trust.
Maybe that’s the genius of the design, too. Chaos could break out. So, Lowry has a Plan B baked in.
Wycheck: Yeah, exactly.
You look so smooth doing it. I remember thinking it was absolutely a forward lateral as a kid. Then you get older — and depending how you’re looking at it — I can see why it’s not. The motion in which you threw it, you look like you’re throwing a forward pass. But the ball bends backward.
Wycheck: It’s kind of an illusion in a way. Dyson was in front of me, but he stepped back. I kind of jumped and threw it like I was turning a double play. But then after I threw it, I backpedaled for some reason. So that’s what makes an illusion of it. You see Dyson go back, but also me move back. Everyone’s going to automatically think it’s forward because I’m behind the play after I drifted back. You can see my arm angle in that still shot throwing it backwards. That was my job: To throw it backwards. It was a lot closer than we wanted it, but I’m glad (the line judge) Byron Boston didn’t drop the flag or else the play would’ve been dead.
It would’ve died right there?
Wycheck: There would’ve been no review or anything like that if the flag was thrown. It’s a penalty.
And replay was just put in that season.
Wycheck: Yeah, and it was such an intense time standing on the field waiting for Luckett. He had some controversy before that, too. So we’re hanging out on the field, talking to some of the guys, and they’re going, “Eh, nice try.” I was like, “I don’t know — this could be interesting!” He came out and the atmosphere was absolutely nuts. People were going crazy.
I knew. Because I didn’t throw a screwball. I couldn’t do that type of action. Maybe Mahomes could do it.
The physical ability, obviously you’re a tight end so you can bend and move and put your body into weird positions so that all helped you. But psychologically — when you know Lorenzo might hand you that ball and you know the whole country’s watching, you know you have to do something that really isn’t part of your job description, were you nervous before that kickoff? Any part of you?
Wycheck: No, when you’re confident and you know what you need to do, especially with the communication, especially with the guys up front who set up the blocks — the wall — I had the confidence in that moment to just react. It was all muscle memory and being in the moment. Reacting. So, I didn’t even think about being nervous.
I did get nervous in the Super Bowl. I got nervous on the last play of the game against the Rams. I was the first read on the play. With all of the stakes, I went to the line and said to myself, “Holy shit. You better catch this ball if it comes to you. You’ve got no other choice.” I was like, “Damn. This ball could come to me.” That’s the one time, the only time I went to the line thinking about the consequences.
Anything to your upbringing that made you tough for that Music City moment? A lot of guys tense up in that moment.
Wycheck: I was always really confident in myself over the years. I was a come-out-of-nowhere kind of guy who had to work for everything. It was instilled in me when I was little by my father. All of his sacrifices, working three jobs, trying to support us. That’s where I got my work ethic and that confidence in myself. He was a police officer in Philly and it paid squat. He worked security overnights at this trucking company. Then, he worked at a beer distributor loading kegs onto trucks.
When people hear your name now, they think of that play. What’s it like day to day? All glorious to bask in that? Or are there moments you want to tell people, “Hey! I did a lot more on the field!”
Wycheck: I keep that to myself. It was such a special play in a special moment. Especially for our team and our fans. It was the first year in our stadium. The older you get, when you see it as one of the top plays in NFL playoff history, it makes you feel good. It brings back a lot of memories. The relationships we had on that team. It was a special team. You feel good that you made a mark on the league. You always want to be remembered for doing something good and being a team player. That’s what I’m most proud about, so I don’t ever get tired about it. If someone new asks the question? I’m happy to explain.
I’d imagine that you probably heard from Bills fans early on that weren’t quite as friendly.
Wycheck: If I went into a bar in Buffalo, I’d probably get in a fight. With all these crazy Bills fans. It’s nothing against Buffalo. It’s a great football tradition. I have no ill will against anyone. I heard from a lot of Bills fans and people in Vegas who had money on the game. (laughs) They were either very happy or very disappointed.
Is your health OK? Your body, your mind? (Note: Wycheck said in 2017 he believes he suffered 25 concussions and feared CTE symptoms were setting in.)
Wycheck: It’s good. It’s not the best. It’s the wear and tear — what happens. I’d rather the NFL give us the five years of insurance when you need it. Not when you’re healthy and not playing. I think they’ve got that a little backwards. I used to complain a lot about the concussions because I was very passionate about that issue, and sending guys back on the field knowing that — in the old school — no one even paid attention to it. As I got older as an assistant player rep with the team, trying to change the helmet technology, I cared a lot about that subject. I knew what I went through. I hate to see guys get hurt. And all the craziness with the suicides, Junior Seau was a friend of mine. What happened to him is devastating to me. I flipped my mindset a few years ago and just said, “Let’s get moving. Don’t sulk. No woe is me. Let’s get back to try to live a productive, healthy life.”
What’s it like day to day for you. We’re having a conversation here and I’d never know anything’s wrong.
Wycheck: I have my moments. It’s tough. You’re always scared about what’s going to happen down the line. But at the same time, I try not to think about the gloom and doom of it.
I just pulled up the final play in the Super Bowl. On the TV copy, you’re cut off so we’ll just assume you were wide open.
Wycheck: Yeah, it was just me and Dyson on the one side. They played straight over two zone. That’s what took me out of it, and opened it up for Dice. I just regret not grabbing Mike Jones’ hip a little bit and pulling him along. Maybe that would’ve helped. I always think about, “What could I have done better to allow us to score on that play?” I guarantee you there are certain plays in big games for guys who don’t make a lot of money, but they’re thinking about it. You don’t think Brett Favre is thinking about his last play? Throwing a pick? Those moments, it is so true that they definitely think about it — at least for me — once a day. Players are lying if they say they don’t.
The big-time guys have that play that’ll never leave them. There’s going to be regret that carries over the rest of your life. Every guy will tell you they have at least one moment.