Mike Utley's courage was the inspiration behind the Lions' last playoff win

Detroit Lions offensive linesman Mike Utley is examined after suffering a spinal injury on Nov. 18, 1991.

Even in a hospital bed, with a horrific spinal-cord injury that would confine him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Mike Utley gave his Detroit Lions teammate a helping hand.

It was in the form of a raised thumb.

That thumbs-up gesture, made by the fallen guard as he was wheeled off the field during a 1991 game against the Rams, became a rallying cry not just for his teammates but the entire city and beyond.

“When it happened certainly it was sobering, it was shocking, it was scary,” longtime Lions executive Bill Keenist said. “But when Mike was about to enter the tunnel, and predictably there were cameras on him, he raised his right thumb. It affected people in the most incredible way.”

That season is especially topical now because it was the last time the Lions notched a postseason victory. They play host to the Rams on Sunday night in a wild-card game.

Former Lions guard Mike Utley gives the thumbs-up after walking assisted from his wheelchair on Dec. 6, 2016.
Former Lions guard Mike Utley gives the thumbs-up after walking assisted from his wheelchair on Dec. 6, 2016 during his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. (Mike Fiala / Associated Press)

Detroit had a lot of exceptional play that season — the running of Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, the surprising emergence of quarterback Erik Kramer, a stifling defense that included Pro Bowl selections Jerry Ball, Benny Blades and Chris Spielman — but, as many would argue, the courage of Utley lifted the franchise to unexpected heights.

Nearly 33 years later, Utley has survived. He and his wife, Danielle, live in Hurricane, Utah, and oversee the Mike Utley Foundation, which supports research for function-restoring treatment for spinal-cord injuries. Since 2018, he has battled infections and various other health issues related to his condition. Still, he works hard to maintain a positive outlook.

“Life’s what you make it,” Utley, 58, said. “It’s something I’ve got to deal with. Every day I wake up to life, Danielle helps me out tremendously, and we make the best of it.”

Part of that life is an unyielding passion for the Lions, even though the Utleys are season-ticket holders to the Las Vegas Raiders, whose stadium is a two-hour drive from their home.

Lions quarterback Erik Kramer drops back to pass.
Erik Kramer is the last Lions quarterback to win a playoff game. (John Biever / Getty Images)

“The Super Bowl will be a home game for me,” Utley said. “The Lions had damn well better be there.”

That would require three consecutive postseason victories from a franchise that is 1-13 in those games in the Super Bowl era, including a current streak of nine playoff losses in a row.

But some things mean far more than wins and losses, and the impact of Utley’s courage definitely had that effect on his teammates.

The fateful moment occurred on Nov. 17, 1991, on the first play of the fourth quarter against the Rams. He was in his third season out of Washington State, and was hurt on a pass play, sustaining injuries to his sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae. It would leave him largely paralyzed from the chest down.

Lions offensive lineman Eric Andolsek talks on the bench.
Lions offensive lineman Eric Andolsek. (George Gojkovich / Getty Images)

It was a jarring moment for the entire sports world, a reminder of the brutal nature of the game and the real potential for catastrophic injury. Utley’s response also galvanized his teammates, who all wore “Thumbs Up” T-shirts under their pads.

“Obviously you don’t want to use someone’s personal tragedy as your own rallying cry, but in a sense it not only pulled the team together and the city together,” Kramer said. “You could go one of two ways with that. The team clearly came together in the way that it did. I’m just grateful to be a part of that.”

The Lions won their final six games of that season to clinch the NFC North title. In their traditional Thanksgiving Day game, that year against Chicago, Detroit team captain and fellow offensive lineman Lomas Brown delivered a speech on the field before kickoff on the public-address speaker. The national broadcast showed it as well.

Utley was being treated at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., at the time.

“Mike, we know you are listening,” Brown said, reading words written by Keenist. “On behalf of your teammates, the fans, the players and the coaches, we want you to know that you are as big a part of this team today as you have ever been. And that you will always be a part of this team. Thanks for your courage, your inspiration and your strength. We’re all praying for you, we’re all pulling for you. So keep the faith. We love you, and thumbs up, Mike.”

That Lions team would go on to beat Dallas in the divisional round before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins in the NFC title game.

The Lions went 12-4 that season, their best win total, which the franchise matched this season.

In the summer that followed, more tragedy. Eric Andolsek, the Lions’ other starting guard, was killed in the front yard of his home in Thibodaux, La. He was doing yard work when a truck driver failed to maintain control of his flatbed diesel and ran over the player.

Former Detroit Lions quarterback Erik Kramer attends a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ford Field in October 2017.

“I always say 1991 was a bittersweet year for the Lions,” Brown said. “There were great moments, man, our team playing as well as it played, us getting one game away from the Super Bowl. But it came with a lot of tragedy and a lot of cost.”

As for Keenist, who retired in 2020 as the team’s senior vice president of communications, one of the most moving moments of that season came as the team buses were pulling out of the parking lot of RFK Stadium after the final loss to Washington.

“I’m getting goose bumps remembering it,” Keenist said. “Our bus was quiet, but it just got silent. When we rode past that crowd of people — players, families, fans — every single thumb went up in the air.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.