Inspirational Utley provided Skins with '12th man' challenge

John Steadman

January 13, 1992|By John Steadman

Football is the most emotional of games that little boys and men, too, try to play. The Washington Redskins were at a momentous disadvantage. They were up against "12 men."

The Detroit Lions had the all-important psychological edge. They were playing with a cause, a team fired with a mission that would negate the superlative abilities of those respected adversaries in burgundy and gold.

In a Denver rehabilitation hospital, one of their own, tackle Mike Utley, a casualty in midseason, was trying to learn to shape a new life for himself. He had fallen in combat, a reminder to every National Football League player of how serious the risk of a paralyzing injury is when they stap on a uniform and enter the arena of the modern gladiator, where bodies will bend and even break when they collide in thunderous moments of physical intensity.

Teammate Utley, who has little hope of ever walking again, was the reason the entire Detroit squad craved, despite enormous obstacles, to keep on winning all the way to the Super Bowl. They had put seven straight in the victory column.

Just one more was all they wanted, to qualify for the Super Bowl and dedicate the effort to "our man Mike," last name Utley, who couldn't be with them on the field but whose presence and spirit accompanied them everywhere they went.

Yes, the Redskins, the finest team in all of football, were up against an extradordinary circumstance they, too, could feel and knew existed. It was difficult to deal with yet they could comprehend why the Lions felt as they did.

What the rival team does with "Xs" and "Os" always has an answer, offensively and defensively, but how can you coach against the heart-moving, soul-stirring feelings of an opponent that has "12 players" in the game? Coach Joe Gibbs and the Washington Redskins have compassion, too, for Mike Utley and they were aware that in some spiritual way he was lined up against them.

Yet the Redskins and the soft-talking coach, who comes in a plain wrapper and wouldn't know how to be a "con man," approached the effort that was confronting them with a professionalism and humanity that remains a credit to all of them.

The Redskins were told they were heavy favorites because they had their comfortable home stadium and a partisan audience to cheer them on to the Super Bowl. And, besides, they had wiped out Detroit, 45-0, in the opening game of the season.

The Lions knew they wouldn't embarrass themselves that way again, considering they were one triumph away from the Super Bowl. The team was reaching beyond its capabilities because of its motivation following the accident to Utley and believed profoundly it could achieve what the odds board said it couldn't.

Final score: Washington 41, Detroit 10. And after the result was posted, the deeply religious gentleman who coaches the Redskins was to say, "I don't think I've ever felt so humble. I thank God."

Gibbs will be going to a Super Bowl two weeks hence for the fourth time in 11 years and has been a winner twice in this grand finale of all pro football spectacles. His teams have been poised, well-disciplined under fire and schooled against ever taking a cheap shot.

A sixth-round choice from Washington State, Mark Rypien wasn't supposed to be much of a prospect when he was taken in the 1986 college draft but has exceeded all expectations. Some scouts said he lacked arm strength (certainly not a Sammy Baugh or a Sonny Jurgenson when it came to firepower) yet there isn't any type pass Rypien can't complete -- even when it comes to reaching a receiver 60 yards downfield.

The Redskins are competent in every aspect when it comes to extensive evaluation. Gibbs has the winningest football team in the land, now standing within arm's length of the Super Bowl, with an exceptional 16-2 record.

Those two losses, to Dallas and Philadelphia, were by a mere three and two points, which serves to underline just how capable the Redskins have become. And the latter defeat to Philadelphia came in the regular season-ending game after the division had long been decided and there wasn't that much incentive.

But Gibbs still had to face an aroused Detroit foe that was fired with the charge to "go out and win for Mike Utley." He knew he was competing, in effect, against "12 players" but found a way to win in a style that is relentlessly effective. And, oh, so classic.

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