Mike Utley underwent spinal fusion surgery yesterday to stabilize his neck and soon will begin therapy to help him cope with the paralysis doctors say will last the rest of his life.
Utley, a Detroit Lions guard injured in Sunday's 21-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams, was in the operating room at Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital for about four hours as Dr. Philip Mayer fused Utley's fifth, sixth and seventh vertebrae to prevent further injury.
Utley, 25, was fitted with a halo brace to immobilize his head and neck and will be transferred to the Southwestern Michigan Rehabilitation Institute in Detroit early next week, Mayer said. No more surgery is planned.
Utley, 6 feet 6 and 290 pounds, suffered a complete spinal cord lesion after he fell on his head in Sunday's game, Mayer said.
He has some feeling in his fingers and arms, an encouraging sign Mayer said could mean Utley eventually will regain full use of his arms and hands. But the surgeon said Utley has no feeling below his clavicle, or neck bone, and probably never will.
Utley's size has made treating him more difficult than an average-sized patient, the doctor said. Utley is too big for normal hospital beds and tables and special equipment have been flown in from hospitals nationwide.
He has been placed in a "big boy" bed, which holds patients up to 7 feet tall and 1,000 pounds, and "it takes at least eight people to lift him," Mayer said.
Mayer said Utley's neck was too thick to allow doctors to examine the injury with X-rays. The halo brace was added after yesterday's surgery to ensure the fusion heals properly and is not damaged by the weight of Utley's head and neck, Mayer said.
* BRONCOS: Running back Bobby Humphrey returned to Denver after a one-day excused absence, apparently determined to battle through what has been a frustrating season for him as a backup to Gaston Green.
Humphrey missed Wednesday's practice after informing coach Dan Reeves he was considering quitting the team.
He was back 24 hours later, and he practiced with the team yesterday, although Reeves said it was likely that Humphrey would miss Sunday's game at Seattle. Reeves hinted that Humphrey would be a candidate for the two-player inactive list for the game because he didn't practice on offense on Wednesday.
* 49ERS: Injured quarterback Steve Young has been ruled out of Monday night's game against the Rams. Steve Bono is scheduled to start.
* BILLS: Bruce Smith, last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, expects to be ready to play Dec. 1 against the Jets. Smith has missed all but one game after knee surgery on July 22.