Paralyzed athlete hopes to help the less fortunate

John Steadman

March 02, 1992|By John Steadman

Every man, woman and child conversant with the trials, trauma and torment of Mike Utley wanted to reach out and lift him to his feet. That's the ongoing beauty, the one constant of the human spirit -- to respond and offer help in a desperate time of need.

The unified intention of a torrent of silent prayers being offered that afternoon, Nov. 17, 1991, implored the same: Get up, Mike, No. 60, and get back to the huddle.

It wasn't to be.

Mike Utley is now in a wheelchair, the result of sustaining a fracture to the sixth cervical vertebra. He had been pursuing one of the most physically demanding of all livelihoods, a National Football League career, playing guard for the Detroit Lions and carrying out a pass blocking assignment in what was expected to be routine execution against the Los Angeles Rams.

Then it happened. No warning. Mike Utley went down and wasn't able to move. Trainers and doctors raced to his side to make all the preliminary checks and tests. Within minutes, he was carried away with the most tender care, in front of a hushed audience, to see if the on-field diagnosis might be wrong. Unfortunately, the medical judgment was right.

The life of Mike Utley will never be the same. But on the positive side: His indomitable courage, engaging personality and raw resolve and the sheer fight within him haven't changed.

Utley arrived in Baltimore last night, his first "road trip" since the accident, to be among 28 recipients -- one from each NFL team -- honored at the Ed Block Courage Awards ceremony scheduled tomorrow night at the Martin's West banquet hall.

Don't expect to hear choke-filled words of self-pity. What, he's asked, is the plan for the rest of his life? And the answer, in itself, is a keen insight that reveals all that's necessary to know about the man and athlete, Mike Utley:

"I just hope to go help others less fortunate than I am in any way, shape or form." And what about the thousands of letters he has received from around the world? Was there one that maybe conveyed a special message? "Yes. A 6- or 7-year-old boy wrote to tell me he was sorry and, if possible, would like to switch his legs for mine. Imagine that kind of feeling from a child."

What of those depressing moments, as most of us have, when his morale is on the "down" side? "I do the same as everyone else. I remind myself there are many others far worse off. Then I try to get outside to enjoy the nice day."

Utley, once 6 feet 6, 288 pounds, laughs and says the delicate fusion surgery, following the lower-body paralysis, has "left me a bit shorter than I used to be." His wish now is to be involved with a spinal cord foundation, maybe to start his own, to assist those "others" he talks about.

What of football and its inherent dangers? Any advice for parents who may be reluctant to allow their sons to play a game where physical collisions can never be avoided? "If one person is injured in a car accident, the rest of us don't stop driving," he replies. "Same with football. It teaches cooperation, self-discipline, confidence and getting along in a team concept. That's how I see it. Always have. Still do."

There is no intention on his part to keep private his innermost thoughts of when he was injured and realized he wasn't able to move. "I knew right away it wasn't a regular old bump. I had been hurt before but now I couldn't get up."

But as he was taken to the sidelines, before a hushed and respectful audience, Mike offered concerned teammates a thumbs-up sign that has become something of a personal signature. "I just wanted them to go like hell and win the game. I was trying to notify the guys things were going to be OK for me."

Has the experience brought on a strong religious awakening? "I have always had tremendous faith. Every night I'd say 'thank you Lord' for the day just completed and every morning I'd thank Him again for getting me through the night. Our family is Catholic. Don't get me wrong. I've never been a Bible banger, or out wardly religious, but I'm a believer."

Utley, born in Seattle, a product of Washington State University and boasting the size and strength of a giant redwood, is enthused over his visit to Baltimore. And so are all the other NFL players as they crowd around to exchange personal greetings and words of encouragement.

He is accompanied here by his mother and father (an engineer with Boeing Aircraft); a friend, Shannon; and a medical aide. "This is my vacation," he said with unrestrained joy filling his voice. "I've really looked forward to all this."

One of his former college coaches, John L. Smith, now at the University of Idaho, gave a personal perspective on Mike when he said, "His heart is as big as his body. You look at his hair and think he's a loose cannon but he's not. He's a genuine, caring, honest person."

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