Football's most dreaded injury In snap of neck, a career is lost, but Stingley can tell Utley life goes on

November 20, 1991|By Dave Anderson | Dave Anderson,New York Times

The scene is always surrounded at first by a hush, then by silence.

Down on the football field a player isn't moving. He's stretched out with doctors and trainers kneeling, talking to him. He's not moving. That's when the hush turns into silence because the spectators know that it's not just another torn knee or busted shoulder. They know it's football's most dreaded injury. They know it's a damaged neck.

Move, you can almost hear people saying as if they were praying. Move your legs, move your arms.

But every so often a player doesn't move. He might be a high school or college player. Or he might be a pro. Something's wrong with his neck, as it was with Mike Utley, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound guard for the Detroit Lions, when silence surrounded him Sunday afternoon at the Silverdome.

Utley, who had been a third-round draft choice out of Washington State in 1989, was developing into one of the Lions' best pass-blockers.

"He has the disposition and temperament of a defensive lineman," the Lions wrote of him in their media guide, meaning he was more aggressive than passive. "Excellent feet, uses arms well."

Now, according to his doctors, it appears that Mike Utley won't be able to use those feet anymore, but he will have the use of those arms.

He underwent 2 1/2 hours of surgery Monday for a fractured sixth cervical vertebrae and what doctors described as an "extensive soft tissue injury" when he fell on top of his head after a collision with David Rocker, a pass-rusher for the Los Angeles Rams.

"It was an accident," said Lions coach Wayne Fontes. "It wasn't an illegal play or an illegal block."

It was football, that's all it was. In football, the dreaded neck injury occurs every so often. It's the price that the game extracts from the fun. It happens more often in high school football where the kids aren't always strong enough or taught enough to avert the neck injury. It happens occasionally in college, as it did to Marc Buoniconti at The Citadel and to Chucky Mullins at Ole Miss. And it's happened in the National Football League, as it did in 1978 to Darryl Stingley, then a wide receiver with the New England Patriots.

As much as any other victim, Stingley understood yesterday what Mike Utley was thinking while recuperating in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

"If I could talk to him," Stingley said from his Chicago apartment, "I would try to ease his mind of the fears of the future. I remember being so confused as to what my life would be like. I was afraid. But from what the doctors are saying about Mike, he'll be able to use his arms and hands but he'll be in a wheelchair. However you come back, as long as you have the ability to breathe, you can live a fulfilled life."

Stingley is 41 now. He's been a quadriplegic ever since his collision with Raiders safety Jack Tatum in an exhibition game in Oakland.

"I'm trying to complete my requirements for a degree in education at Purdue," said Stingley, the Patriots' executive director of player personnel. "I hope to be able to counsel kids or do something in business. I tried to get a job teaching kids a couple of years ago, but I was told I had to have a degree."

It would seem that Stingley's life since 1978 would be all "the degree" he needs.

"But when I get a degree in education," he said, "they won't be able to tell me that anymore."

Five years ago, at the first Marc Buoniconti dinner to benefit the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Stingley rolled his wheelchair over to where Buoniconti was sitting in his wheelchair. Marc, the son of the former Miami Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti, has been paralyzed since 1985. After he tackled running back Herman Jacobs of East Tennessee State, he rolled over and saw an arm lying in front of him.

"I saw it was connected to my body," he said later. "If I hadn't seen it connected, I wouldn't have known it was mine."

Ever since, Marc Buoniconti has been the symbol of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a research group headed by Dr. Bart Green.

"When I met Marc at that dinner," Stingley recalled, "he was so determined to get out of the chair, he didn't want to hear about being in the chair. I'm sure he's still determined. And maybe someday the Miami Project will find a cure."

Until it does, Mike Utley, like Darryl Stingley and Marc Buoniconti, will be in a wheelchair with football's dreaded injury.

"But life goes on," Stingley was saying now. "You learn to live with your impairment. You learn you can build a life."

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