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The bond Sam Wyche, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson share is heartfelt

Sam Wyche was one of the innovators of the no-huddle offense. AP Photo/Emily Horos

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Sam Wyche was literally on the verge of death when a tall, dominating figure entered his hospital room 14 months ago. The man walked past a large, comfortable chair and asked the 71-year-old who coached the Cincinnati Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII to move over so he could sit next to him.

It was Jerry Richardson.

The owner of the Carolina Panthers wanted to share all he went through in 2009, when doctors at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte successfully performed a heart transplant that saved his life.

He wanted to share with Wyche, who was anxiously waiting on a heart from an unknown donor, everything he faced.

"You could tell he was quite sure of himself and his ability to help people out and make it sound simple," Wyche said this week by telephone from his home in Pickens, South Carolina.

It wasn't quite that simple. Wyche was hours from being placed in hospice to live out his final hours when doctors found a donor with a match for the transplant.

Even then, it was touch and go.

"I was dying," Wyche recalled. "My other organs were turning brown. The doctor said they weren't getting enough blood, and it was just a matter of time. The doctors said I didn't have hours left. I had minutes left when that heart arrived."

Today Wyche, like Richardson, is a walking testament to the donor program. He rides his bicycle 20-27 miles at a time several days a week. He's logging hours toward his pilot's license. He is enjoying time with his six grandchildren.

On Sunday, he’ll be honored as a Bengals legend when Cincinnati faces archrival Cleveland.

Wyche also is spending a lot of time traveling the country speaking to encourage others to get involved in the donor program. He'll be on a Donate Life Float with baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew, the benefactor of a heart and kidney transplant, at the Jan. 1 Tournament of Roses Parade.

He has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season.

"Every time I talk to somebody who has had any kind of a transplant, there's always a story behind it that knocks your socks off because every one of them are life and death," Wyche said. "The death part comes way too often because there aren't enough organ donors."

Second chance

Wyche's heart had been failing him since he was diagnosed in 2001 with viral cardiomyopathy, a heart disease to which only 5 percent of the population is susceptible.

"I beat the odds," he said. "Two out of three die of that in the first year."

But in August 2016, Wyche started to feel weak. Like Richardson in 2009, he went through the extensive process that takes place before a person is judged to be a transplant candidate.

The coach who made the no-huddle offense popular was suddenly on the clock -- of life and death.

"If somebody didn't donate, Sam would not be here today," said Dr. Sanjeev Gulati, a cardiologist at Carolinas Medical Center who oversaw Wyche's transplant. "If we didn't have a transplant program, both of them [Wyche and Richardson] would not be here."

The news that a donor was found for Wyche can best be compared to a successful Hail Mary touchdown at the end of a football game.

Wyche doesn't know who the donor was, though he imagines the person was an athlete or somebody in incredible shape, judging by how quickly he bounced back and how strong he has become since. He has exchanged letters with the family of the donor, but all he really knows is that the heart came from somewhere roughly a two-hour flight north of Charlotte.

"When they told me up there, I guess I was half goofy on drugs and stuff," Wyche said with a laugh. "But my immediate thought was Pittsburgh Steelers territory. I imagined a 'Terrible Towel' waver in my chest."

The Steelers, like Cleveland, were one of Wyche's biggest rivals during his years with the Bengals.

"Which I still appreciated," Wyche said in case the donor is a Steelers fan. "And I'm so grateful for."

Important cause

Richardson walked into Wyche’s hospital room again a day after the initial meeting. The second time it was unannounced.

"Same thing," Wyche recalled. "He walks by that big, comfortable chair and says, 'Move over. I want to make sure you heard everything I said yesterday because it's that important.'"

Richardson is more behind-the-scenes in his work with the donor program. He does it quietly, like he did with Wyche.

Wyche understands. He was surprised Richardson took time to see him, knowing it was the beginning of another football season, one in which the Panthers had high hopes a year after reaching the Super Bowl.

Wyche now pulls for the Panthers, who are 7-3 heading into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets, because of Richardson's support. He doesn't pay attention to the injury reports, like he did as a coach. He simply watches as a fan.

But he's an even bigger fan of the donor program. He has gotten between 650,000 and 850,000 hits on his website and Facebook page, where he encourages others to get involved. He hopes the float on New Year's Day will raise even more awareness.

"I don't tell people have a good day anymore," Wyche said. "I say, 'Have a blessed life,' because I am one of those that got a second chance, and I'm blessed beyond words.

"I'm grateful to be alive. I'm here for a reason. My mission is for as many people as I can reach to become a donor."