Every once in a while, something happens in sports that makes you stop and think just how fleeting life can be.
Mike Utley experienced that moment on Nov. 17, 1991 in a game against the LA Rams. It was pretty much a routine play but while making a block, something he probably did a thousand times in his life while playing high school football and later with the Washington State Cougars, he injured his sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae.
We had moved out to Seattle by that time and I was horrified when what had happened to him was aired. Not because he was a favorite football player or even a star. A starting right offensive guard lives in anonymity. As he was taken off the field, he gave the Silverdome crowd a thumbs up which, at the time, everyone took as a good sign that what had happened wasn't as bad as it looked.
As a result of his injury, Mike Utley is paralyzed from the chest down. I'm sure that anyone reading this would certainly understand if Mike would have become bitter and angry at the world after his injury. Instead, not long after he was diagnosed, he and his agent, Bruce Allen, began the Mike Utley Foundation to help find a cure for paralysis.
What makes Mike Utley a hero? Because rather than wallow in self-pity and give up on life, he looked forward and embraced his life, despite all the curveballs that were being thrown at him.
His response to all these curveballs? "I don't take any prisoners. I don't put up with any crying or snibbling. I don't have time for it."
Nine weeks after his injury, Utley was preparing to watch the Super Bowl when he had a revelation. He wanted something to drink.
He snuck out of Denver's Craig Hospital, the country's leading spinal cord rehab center, in a wheelchair and wheeled himself four blocks to a 7-11. While crossing the street, he got stuck on a curb and waited until a passing motorist gave him a push. At the store, the clerk got him a 40-ounce beer and counted the money out from his wallet, which was in a backpack hanging behind him.
He rolled back to the hospital where he needed an hour and a half to open the beer. His wrists and hands were so week, the only way he could open it was to place it against he body and squeeze.
His goal was to be there in front of the TV watching his former WSU teammate, Mark Rypien, lead his Washington Redskins to victory over the Buffalo Bills with a cold one. He got it done.
Since then, nothing holds him back. He hunts, fishes, ski's and goes scuba diving. His philosophy is simple: "You're only limited by what you put in front of yourself as a wall. You are only limited by what you say you can't do."
A great credo to live by.
Visit the Mike Utlely Foundation for more information on spinal cord injuries.