I don’t know if it’s in the front of the NFL player’s mind, the middle, or the back, but it’s in there somewhere. The idea that when you run onto the field, you might not run off is in there somewhere. It has to be.
The NFL is 60 minutes each week of locomotives running into each other at breakneck speed—sometimes literally.
But it wasn’t a high-speed collision that changed Mike Utley’s life. It was just another play in just another game, on just another Sunday.
It happened 20 years ago this past Thursday.
Blocking, driving, lowering himself for leverage. Whatever it took to gain an advantage over his defensive counterpart.
The chain gang was succeeding. The Lions were moving the ball. They were nearing the so-called red zone—that prime real estate that lies 20 yards and closer to the goal line.
Then it happened—on just another play on just another drive in just another game.
Utley, a mountain of a man listed as 6’6” and 288 pounds, was pass blocking when he lost balance. His pass rushing opponent, David Rocker, was winning this particular down, and Rocker kept driving in his effort to reach the quarterback.
Utley fell awkwardly and onto his head, breaking his fifth, sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae.
If you ever want to hear how quiet a sports venue can be, try a pro football game with a player lying on the field, unmoving.
It’s a horrible, intestine-twisting silence.
Utley, after many pained minutes, was finally loaded onto a stretcher. Only when it was wheeled away did anyone in the Silverdome exhale, let alone make a sound.
But the Lions fans did indeed make a sound. It started as nervous applause, then as the stretcher made its way to the players’ tunnel, the applause turned into a small cheer, then eventually into a roar.
Utley then made one of the most famous gestures in Detroit sports history.
His life certainly flashing before his eyes, his fear of his own well-being no doubt palpable, Utley nonetheless thought about the fans and his teammates.
He managed to work his right hand into a position of hope.
The gesture just about brought the Silverdome down. The image was beamed onto the big JumboTron screen above the end zone scoreboard, so that the fans could see it, just as those watching at home on television could.
Utley’s message of hope became the rallying cry for the Lions, who didn’t lose another game the rest of the year until they succumbed to Washington in the NFC Championship game in January.
November 17, 1991 is a date forever etched onto Mike Utley’s brain.
It’s been 20 years, and still there is some unresolved business.
Utley intends to, once again, walk off an NFL field.
“A man walks on the field of battle, and he walks off the field of battle,” Utley explained last month to LostLettermen.com.
Utley has to do the walking off part yet—and without the benefit of braces, a walker, or anything else.
“I can walk with ankle braces, I can walk with crutches or a walker,” Utley says. “The problem is, it’s not really functional, as in to be independent, to be able to go to the grocery store. It’s still more feasible and—safety-wise—it’s more productive for me to be able to transfer into my chair and go to the mall, go shopping, get groceries, clean up around the house.”
Utley has no doubt in his mind that one day he will walk again, sans accessories.
It’s one reason why Utley, along with his wife Dani, started the Mike Utley Foundation—to find out more about spinal cord injuries and to help others battling paralysis. And, of course, to ultimately find a cure for such horrendous injuries.
Utley has the will, but he needs the science...and the dollars.
It’s among the biggest of moral victories, that Mike Utley can do as much as he can, considering from where he came on November 17, 1991.
But Utley is an NFL guy at heart and in the NFL there are no moral victories. You either win, or you lose.
You either walk...or you don’t.
So it’s up at 5 a.m. on most mornings in suburban Seattle (he attended Washington State University), pushing himself in physical therapy twice a week and lifting four times a week.
Normally, I don’t care for the athlete or the celebrity who talks about himself in the third person, but Utley is an exception.
“Mike Utley will walk off Ford Field, his game plan is today,” Utley says. “If it’s not today, it will be tomorrow.”
Since Utley’s injury, which was preceded and then followed shortly thereafter by other horrifying incidents, the NFL has become much more conscious of protecting players—especially when it comes to anything in the head or neck areas.
So you’d think that Utley, through his Foundation, would be totally on board with the rules changes the league has implemented.
“No,” Utley immediately says when prodded about potential drastic rule changes such as linemen beginning every play in a standing position. “Listen, let the fellas play. You want the best players in the world to get on that gridiron. You want the fastest and the best athletes. Let them play.”
Meanwhile, between pushing himself to the limit physically in the pursuit of walking, Utley tirelessly raises money for the Foundation, speaks and encourages. It’s not uncommon for the NFL to bring Utley in to talk to players facing the ends of their careers due to injury, though they didn’t suffer the same horrific end that Utley suffered.
Utley, after all, was once read his last rites, when blood clots that formed after the injury almost killed him.
But slowly he made progress. In 1999, Utley stood up and moved his feet for the first time with the assistance of braces on his legs.
But it’s not enough. Just another moral victory.
Utley, to hear him tell it, will walk off Ford Field someday, finally finishing his unfinished business. And then?
“(I’d like) to be able to walk with the wife on the beach. Something as small as that,” he says.