Utley blocks out thought of what might have been

March 03, 1992|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

Danny Peebles was the lucky one. The Cleveland Browns wide receiver took a blow to the head in an NFL game in Houston on Nov. 17 and lost all feeling in his arms and legs for 10 minutes. Rather than risk permanent paralysis, Peebles retired from football.

Mike Utley wasn't as fortunate, and he didn't have the choice of retiring when he got hurt on the same day in another NFL city.

Utley had started 11 straight games at right guard for the Detroit Lions last season when a freak fall on the artificial surface of the Silverdome left him paralyzed from the chest down with a spinal cord injury.

Tonight, in his first major public appearance since the injury, he will be honored during the 14th annual Ed Block Courage Awards at Martin's West. There is a fragile line that separates Utley from the 27 other NFL players who also will be recognized for battling adversity. But 3 1/2 months after fate cut short a promising career, Utley, 26, has no time for hindsight.

"It's a great game," he said emphatically yesterday in a news conference at the Tremont Plaza. "I wouldn't want to play any other game."

Utley brings his message of perseverance and determination to the Block banquet, which benefits the abused children of St. Vincent's Center. Flanked by more than 20 players, he said he came to share their camaraderie, to support the cause of St. Vincent's and, yes, to show the sporting world he is on the mend.

"I've got a long ways to go yet, but this is a good starting point right now, to say I'm here and doing this," Utley said. "Give me a little bit of time and I'll be doing a hell of a lot more than I am right now."

The prognosis was dire when Utley went down last November. He was pass blocking against the Los Angeles Rams' David Rocker on a play that went for a touchdown. Rocker leaped in an attempt to block Erik Kramer's pass and came down on Utley. Utley lost his balance, fell and landed on the crown of his helmet, damaging two cervical disks. The next day, he underwent a 2 1/2 -hour spinal fusion operation.

In the aftermath of his injury, he was told by Detroit doctors that he would not walk again.

What he has done in three months of therapy at the Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., is just short of miraculous. When he was wheeled off the field, he gave a thumbs-up sign to his stunned teammates. "The only thing he could use," said his mother, Irene, "was his thumb."

It took more than a month for Utley to regain use of his hands. It wasn't until recently that he could pop the top on, say, a beer bottle. Progress has come in small increments.

"Just to pick up a cup using one hand, opening a beer, I couldn't do that two weeks ago," he said. "I can do that now. It's something simple, but it's one thing you say, 'Well, I can do that now and I couldn't do it before.' It's little things."

Utley has been a model patient at Craig Hospital, according to public relations coordinator Candyce Bongiorno. He works eight hours a day, five days a week, to learn new skills and make himself as independent as he was before the injury. At 6 feet 6, he has lost about 50 pounds from his playing weight of 300 pounds.

"He has a great outlook on life," Bongiorno said. "He is, in Craig's eyes, a very normal, well-motivated patient. He is a very social person with a great sense of humor. He's very concerned about other people. He doesn't want anyone to think he's in the limelight."

During his time at Craig, Utley has learned to transfer himself from his wheelchair. He has been out to see a Denver Broncos football game and a Denver Nuggets basketball game. And he has been out learning to drive a specially equipped car that will give him more freedom.

What Utley really wants, though, is to walk again.

"Every day is a new day. Every day I figure out how to do something else," he said. "Doctors still say the same thing. I can't change what they say. The only thing I can do is keep doing what I've been doing -- just work hard.

"The biggest goal I have is to walk again. So, everything I do is one more step towards that."

No one, including Utley's attending physician at Craig, Dr. Indira Lanig, wants to discourage Utley from going after that goal.

"Dr. Lanig said there's no crystal ball," said Irene Utley, a retired nurse, who is in Baltimore with her husband, Frank, for the banquet. "We're going to work for the highest potential."

Utley will take his inspiration where he can. Much of it comes in the mail.

"He's gotten cards and letters from all over the world," his mother said. "Five thousand to 6,000 cards and letters. A percentage are from quadriplegics and paraplegics. A lot of letters told him, 'I broke my neck in such-and-such year and the doctors told me I'd never walk, and I'm walking.' "

Then there's the case of Irene Utley's grandnephew in Jefferson City, Mo. At age 14, he broke his neck falling out of a tree. "He was completely paralyzed," she said. "And now he's walking with a walker."

Ultimately, though, Utley's fate will come down to spinal cord research. The Miami Project, founded after Marc Buoniconti was paralyzed in 1985 while playing football for The Citadel, has begun to tackle the assignment. Utley hopes to assist that research through the Mike Utley Foundation, which was established because of the overwhelming response to his injury.

When Utley is self-sufficient enough to leave Craig in another month, he'll work with his agent, Jeff Inwood of Paradise Sports, to give his foundation its direction.

"What we're going to do is start checking out other facilities that research the spinal cord," Utley said. "After that we'll go through and work with people who cannot financially help themselves and [help them] get the best treatment possible. Because I don't want to see anybody else in a wheelchair. I want them to get as much help as possible."

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