September 30, 2011
Most people would have given up on the idea of walking again if it had been nearly two decades since they had done it.
But almost 20 years since he was paralyzed on an NFL football field, it appears as if the resolve of former Detroit Lions offensive lineman Mike Utley hardens each day in pursuit of his dream: Walking off the field at the Lions' stadium, Ford Field.
That's because on Nov. 17, 1991 — a date that is forever etched in Utley's memory — a freak injury resulted in him breaking his neck and being carted off the field at the Pontiac Silverdome while he flashed a "thumbs up" sign to lets fans and teammates know he would be OK.
And so Utley, now 45, remains determined to walk off an NFL field one more time because, as he put it, "A man walks on the field of battle and he walks off the field of battle."
That's why today you will find Utley waking up each day at 5 a.m. about three hours east of Seattle in Wenatchee, Wash., and working out vigorously. He lifts four times a week and does physical therapy twice a week while running the Mike Utley Foundation with his wife, Dani, in hopes he will one day help find a cure for spinal cord injuries.
Because as much as Utley tries to will himself to walk again, even he admits, "I need science."
It's amazing that Utley has come this far after initially being unable to move his arms after the injury. Now he's not only able to use his shoulders, arms and hands, Utley can function on his own, is regularly involved in action sports and even has partial movement in his legs.
"I can walk with ankle braces, I can walk with crutches or a walker," Utley said. "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."
It's clear from talking to Utley that he's not satisfied with any moral victories like these and will stop at nothing short of walking off Ford Field under his own power. He's an engaging man who has a penchant for speaking in the third person, and his optimism and enthusiasm permeate his every word.
It's impossible to set a timeline for when he will walk again since it will require a breakthrough in science, but that doesn't stop Utley from being eternally optimistic.
"Mike Utley will walk off Ford Field, his game plan is today," he said. "If it's not today, it will be tomorrow."
As such, Utley has turned his foundation into his legacy, raising money not only to further spinal cord injury research, but also to aid spinal cord injury rehabilitation and education.
Utley not only tirelessly raises money for the foundation, all proceeds raised through his corporate speaking engagements go straight to it as well (he lives off money he still receives from the Lions and the NFL). Earlier this month, Utley held his annual golf outing in Michigan to keep raising donations for the organization he started just two months after his injury.
Since Utley's injury 20 years ago, the NFL has only grown more violent with players that are bigger, faster and stronger getting carted off on stretchers seemingly every week. You would think that if anyone would support radical rule changes such as lineman beginning plays while standing up to reduce head trauma, it would be someone whose life was forever altered by one freak collision. But that's not Mike Utley.
"Listen," he said, "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."
Looking back now, it's hard to grasp just how much Utley's life changed in an instant on that November day 20 years ago. In his third year out of Washington State, Utley was a starting guard for the Lions and blocking for one of the greatest running backs of all time, Barry Sanders.
Utley had a rock-star image. He was known for his long hair (he still has his trademark mullet to this day) that he sometimes bleached, wearing skull-and-crossbones earrings, riding a motorcycle and listening to heavy metal.
The Lions were on their way to the franchise's first and only playoff win since 1957 when Utley, just 25 at the time and a hulking 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds, broke his fifth, sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae while falling on his head in an attempt to take out the legs of a Los Angeles Rams defender.
Although he was able to form a "thumbs up" as he was carted off the field, Utley became a quadriplegic who at one point was read his last rites when doctors didn't think he would survive two blood clots.
"I was history," Utley recalled. "So I am thankful to God every single day that he gives me the ability."
When a doctor told Utley he would never walk again, Utley told him to leave the room, incensed that someone would tell him what he could or could not do.
About a year after the injury, Utley started regaining movement in his hands and fingers, and in 1999 Utley stood up and moved his feet for the first time with the assistance of braces on his legs.
While he hasn't achieved his goal of walking on his own yet, it hasn't stopped Utley — a self-described "adrenaline junkie" — from staying extremely active, whether he is handcycling, skiing, scuba diving or even skydiving.
Fit with his own custom automobile he's able to lift himself into and drive, Utley takes immense pride in being able to operate on his own.
As the 20th anniversary of the accident approaches, Utley says he has no plans as of yet to be at Ford Field on Nov. 17, although he is excitedly following Detroit's surprising 3-0 start.
Asked what would top his to-do list along with walking off Ford Field, Utley gives a poignant response that sums up what he been deprived of the last two decades and what the rest of us take for granted.
"People forget, it's the small things," Utley said. "[I'd like] to be able to walk with the wife on the beach. Something as small as that."
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