NEW YORK -- Mike Utley of the Detroit Lions will be paralyzed from the chest down, his doctors said yesterday, but should retain the major use of his hands and arms.
"It's really too early to tell, but he should be able to lead a full, productive life," said Dr. Phillip Mayer, the chief of spinal injuries at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
He operated on Utley on Monday, a day after the 6-foot-6-inch, 290-pound guard suffered a severe spinal cord injury when he fell and landed on his head during a game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Pontiac Silverdome.
The injury, one of three paralyzing ones to NFL players since 1978, was described by Lions coach Wayne Fontes as a freakish accident. It occurred when Utley, who was blocking on a pass play on which the Lions scored a touchdown, lost his balance and was unable to break his fall with his hands.
Mayer described Utley as a high-order paraplegic, meaning he has no sensation or control below the waist, and a low-order quadriplegic, meaning he has also lost some, but not all, upper-body functions.
An injury of this type incapacitates an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Americans a year, almost half of them in automobile accidents, often in falls and increasingly through acts of violence, principally gang warfare, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.
About one-sixth of these injuries are attributed to sports, although two-thirds of these are recreational diving accidents. Football is the leading organized sport associated with spinal-column injuries.
According to Dr. Fred Mueller, the head of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, Utley is only the second professional football player to suffer such a paralyzing spinal-cord injury since wide receiver Daryl Stingley of the New England Patriots became a quadriplegic when he was hit during an exhibition game in 1978.
The other, far less serious, recent professional injury occurred in 1989 when safety Jeff Fuller of the San Francisco 49ers lost some of the use of his right arm after a helmet-to-helmet collision during a game against the Patriots.
Mayer said that because Utley had feeling and some movement in his hands and fingers -- a bit more in the left hand than the right -- return of full motor functions could be reasonably expected during extensive rehabilitation.
At a news conference in Pontiac Monday, Dr. David Collon, the team's orthopedic specialist, said Utley had very good gross motor control of his hands.
"He can shake your hand and he can pick up objects and move them around," he said. "We're hoping for a little fine motion to come back. He has the major motion. It just lacks a little bit of the more delicate. People functioning at this level are able to drive cars and lift the proper equipment to get in and out of the car."
Utley, 25, a 1988 third-round draft choice from Washington State who had won a starting job this year, was described as in surprisingly good spirits Monday after learning for the first time that he could never expect to walk again.
"He's taking it well," said Collon. "He is certainly not quite as upbeat today as he was yesterday, but he is taking it very well."
Mayer said that the injury to the spinal cord occurred at the C-6, C-7 level, or between the sixth and seventh of the 33 vertebrae, the roughly doughnut-shaped bony structures, separated by disks, that surround and protect the spinal cord as it runs from the brain stem down the back.
The cord, a soft, spongy tube about a half-inch in diameter, contains nerves linking the brain to all parts of the body and runs for about 15 to 18 inches through the vertebrae, which are divided into four types from top to bottom: cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral.
Mayer, noting that the spinal cord is almost never severed, said the damage to Utley's spinal cord occurred when it was flexed and then stretched, apparently when the player's head snapped back on impact, and when it was compressed and bruised both by fragments from the fractured sixth vertebra and by the pressure of a herniated adjacent disk, which exploded into it.
During the operation on Monday, Mayer removed bone fragments, treated the herniated disk and fused the spinal column using bone taken from Utley's pelvis.
The doctor said that a second operation, to strengthen the spine further by repairing a less-serious fracture to the arch near the sixth vertebra, would be performed as early as tomorrow and that Utley would probably begin rehabilitation, most likely at the nearby Southeast Michigan Rehabilitation Center, next week.
First, however, Utley will be fitted with a special halo, a metal ring attached to shoulder braces, which is attached to the front and back of the skull by screws.