For Lions, it's teammate, not game, on their minds

PRO FOOTBALL

November 24, 1991|By VITO STELLINO

At first glance, today's game between the Detroit Lions (7-4) and the Minnesota Vikings (6-6) is a pivotal one for both teams.

The Vikings were 6-6 a year ago and lost their last four games. They want to avoid another collapse. The Lions, meanwhile, have hopes of rebounding from a 6-10 record last season to make the playoffs.

Yet the winning and losing of this game now doesn't seem as important as it did before Mike Utley of the Lions was paralyzed last Sunday.

As Jerry Burns, the coach of the Minnesota Vikings, said last week: "It overshadows the game we're planning to play. Winning or losing this game, if we could trade it for his good health, I'm sure that I would, and I'm sure Wayne [Fontes] would be more than happy to do so. I don't know what impact it'll have on the game. My concern is all with the player."

Utley gave his teammates the thumbs-up sign as he left the field and could be an inspiration for them.

Fontes, the Lions coach, who called off the team's Monday meeting and told the players to go home and pray for Utley, said after the team started practicing again Wednesday: "I don't think Mike wants to be pitied. We should empathize with him, but he doesn't want to be pitied. He was feisty, and he will be feisty again."

The Lions say they'll be playing for him today.

"We owe it to Mike not to sit around and sulk about him, but to go out and play," offensive tackle Lomas Brown said.

But the players will wear No. 60 decals on their helmets, and nobody will criticize them if they lose this game.

"It's hard, because Mike's not here," offensive guard Eric Andolsek said. "Your thoughts are with Mike. I think everybody feels that way. All you can do is hope and pray."

*

For Raymond Berry, the Colts Hall of Famer who is now a Lions assistant coach, Utley's injury was particularly devastating.

He was a New England Patriots assistant coach in 1978 when Darryl Stingley was paralyzed in a game against the Oakland Raiders, and he was the Patriots head coach in 1989 when Jeff Fuller of the San Francisco 49ers lost some use of an arm in a game against the Patriots.

"It affects me very emotionally," Berry said. I think about his [Utley's] parents. I've got a 25-year-old son. It brings tears to my eyes. It takes me to prayer, and I just pray."

The injury happened on a freak accident, when Utley fell while blocking the Los Angeles Rams' David Rocker on a touchdown pass play. Utley apparently landed on his head, and it snapped back. Because CBS, which televised the game, was showing the pass, it didn't catch the accident. The network obtained tape of the play from the Rams and is scheduled to show it today.

*

Today is the 28th anniversary of the most somber day in NFL history. On Nov. 24, 1963 -- two days after President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas -- commissioner Pete Rozelle ordered the league to play its regular schedule of games. They weren't televised, and were played in a gloomy atmosphere. When Rozelle retired two years ago, he admitted that going ahead with those games was the biggest mistake of his long career as commissioner.

*

It's unfortunate the owners can't call a meeting this week and vote on instant replay.

If one thing was proved by all the problems with the officiating last week, it's that instant replay not only isn't working, but also has a negative effect on the officials on the field.

But by the time the owners vote next March, the passions will have cooled, and it'll probably pass by the minimum 21-7 vote.

George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, who is one of the league's leading opponents of instant replay, said: "We play fantasy in March. We play reality in November."

In March, they'll make the usual statements that the league will work on the techniques, but the NFL has had six years, and it's not getting any better.

The league's refusal to make any comments on the calls -- even in defense of the officials -- also makes it sound as if they're hiding something.

For example, does the league think the official should have reversed John Elway's throw over the line of scrimmage, or does it think the angle wasn't sufficient to overturn it? Is there any explanation why Emmitt Smith's drop was ruled a fumble and then not overturned?

The league stonewalls all these questions. Its only comment was to concede there was a mistake when 10 seconds were taken off the clock twice in the last minute of the Kansas City Chiefs-Denver Broncos game.

Meanwhile, the league officials have a condescending attitude toward complaints on the quality of officiating.

Joe Browne, the league vice president in charge of communications and development (it's uncertain what he's developing), said: "Every year for 70 years, at least one NFL coach or club official has called at least one game the worst-officiated game ever."

It's difficult to officiate an NFL game because there are so many players moving so quickly. And there's no way for the officials to practice, which is why full-time officials aren't the answer.

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