By Ashley Scoby
In sports stadiums where crowd noise is imperative, and incessant, it’s the silence that stands out.
When a football stadium in particular falls into an unsettled quiet, the chance always remains that someone’s life on the field has been changed forever. And on Nov. 17, 1991, it was Lions offensive lineman Mike Utley’s life that flipped in an instant.
His trauma is now well-known. On the first play of the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams, Utley threw a block at defensive lineman David Rocker’s legs. In the same moment, Rocker jumped up to bat down Erik Kramer’s pass, and landed on Utley instead. Utley fell straight on his head, then was motionless. A block gone wrong and multiple fractures to his neck later, Utley was paralyzed from the chest down.
The Silverdome fell mute, unsure of what the game they loved had done to the hulking, personable Mike Utley.
“All ball players, from the time you’re in Pee-Wee to the pros, you get these things called stingers,” Utley said. “You get raw nerves, a burning sensation in your arms, legs and so forth. You know what it is and you deal with it. But this time, not only did I have the burning, but I lost muscle function.”
Utley later became famous for flashing a thumbs-up sign, even with his arms strapped down on the stretcher that carried him out of the Silverdome that day. It’s a gesture that is all too familiar to football fans, and one that those in stadiums anxiously await when a player takes a particularly nasty hit.
“I was just the first one to get caught doing it,” Utley laughed.
The Lions were 6-4 at the time of Utley’s injury. They went on to win that day, 21-10 against the Rams, and didn’t lose again until the NFC championship game, against the Redskins. That year the Lions notched the franchise’s only playoff win since 1957, a streak that has held to this day.
“Whenever we could go see him in the hospital shortly after that, he (Utley) wanted us to be business as usual,” said legendary Lions running back Barry Sanders, who ran behind Utley’s blocks. “I think you can certainly say we were playing inspired.”
“We were a pretty freaking good team before that,” former teammate Marc Spindler said. “But after that, it was us circling the wagons, and we were pretty damn good.”
Beyond serving as an inspiration for wins, Utley made it clear to his teammates not only how fleeting a career in the NFL could be, but also how to deal with it when it was gone.
“Did it change my view of the game?” Sanders said. “Yeah, it definitely shook me up a little bit because I’d never come face-to-face with how dangerous the game could be. I’d never seen a player, in all my experience that I can remember, who wasn’t going to leave the game on his own power.”
Being confined to a wheelchair the last 24 years has done little to stop the human freight train that is Mike Utley. He regained the use (and strength) of his shoulders, arms and hands. He has skydived and gone skiing. He got married in 2001 to Dani, a soft-spoken but spunky woman who Utley met at an eastern Washington gym, where she was training. They both shoot guns at the local range in Washington, a hobby that Utley never lost his passion for, even as he was still rebuilding the strength in his arms. He eventually took a few steps, with the help of leg braces, and still dreams of walking again.
Utley’s enthusiasm for his own life bubbles over into every comment he makes, every action he takes. He is loud and passionate, and an unrelenting supporter of football, in all its beauty and nastiness.
“If he could invent a wheelchair to go to the moon, he would do it,” Spindler said. “He’s never been worried about what he can’t do.”
Utley, alongside Dani, started the Mike Utley Foundation in 1992, which raises money for spinal cord injury research, and helps those with similar injuries find appropriate resources.
“Number one is research,” Utley said. “Number two, you educate people about their injury, because if you’re not educated, you won’t be a productive member of society. And if you’re not a productive member of society, you’re a burden on society. Mike Utley will not be a burden on society.”
That same passion that drives Utley today is what made him who he was as a football player.
To have his former teammates tell it, Utley was the hardest-practicing NFL player who ever lived. Within less than three years, Utley had climbed from third-round draft selection in 1989 to starting offensive lineman in 1991. It was by no accident.
“Utley, he used to practice hard as hell,” said former teammate Kelvin Pritchett, a rookie defensive tackle in 1991 who went up against Utley on the practice field. “It was like, ‘Damn, dude, this is practice.’ But that’s him. When you go against Mike Utley, you better bring your damn hat or he’s going to take you out.”
Said Spindler, also a defensive lineman charged with going against Utley in the trenches: “Mike Utley is one of the toughest (SOB)s I’ve ever been around. To a certain extent I couldn’t stand him. He molded me to the NFL. He was nasty; he was mean. He didn’t like rookies. It was a battle royale. We fist-fought nearly every day.”
The softer side, of course, exists, although it probably never showed itself on a football field. An avid outdoorsman, he brought deer meat he had hunted and cured himself for his teammates to eat one day (“It wasn’t that good, but he was pretty proud of it,” Sanders laughed).
Dani has a hard time escaping Costco when the two go together – Utley is so friendly that a run-of-the-mill grocery trip turns into an hours-long extravaganza for the couple.
And no matter who asks, Utley always maintains the same philosophy. He is in a wheelchair, but it does not define him or his future abilities.
“Mike has always been good at keeping that separate,” Dani said. “People don’t think of their lives like that. What you do is what you do; it’s not who you are. You have to keep the two separate, because it can change in an instant.”
Utley holds no grudge against the sport that paralyzed him. Football broke his body, rendering half of it unserviceable. But football also rendered his mind twice as sharp, his spirit twice as loud.
Love guides us, and it destroys us. Love for football can destroy a body, yet ignite a soul in a way that grown men have a hard time explaining. Its very energy derives from what makes it so dangerous.
“The violence,” Utley says without hesitation, explaining why football was his muse for so long. He has no regrets from playing a game that confined him to a wheelchair for as long as the lack of scientific advancements requires it.
To the day he dies, Utley will shout his love for the sport as loudly as his booming voice will allow.
“I absolutely love hitting you in the head, I love the physical hands-on approach,” he continued. “Yes, I am old-school. I’m not dirty. But it’s the absolute collision that is created. It’s the physical contact. This is a legal battle on the field — collisions, a war. And I loved it. I still do.”
More information about the Mike Utley Foundation can be found here.