Mike Utley refuses to accept life sitting down

September 22, 1992|By Gary Myers | Gary Myers,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- Mike Utley's plans after breakfast were to enjoy New York, which he never had the time to do as a visiting player with the Detroit Lions. And that included window shopping with his girlfriend.

"She'll go spend my money," Utley said.

He laughed. He does that a lot. "I love to live," he said. "I love to laugh."

And in a 90-minute interview yesterday morning at a midtown hotel, that's what strikes you most about Mike Utley, who has been confined to a wheelchair after being paralyzed in a game Nov. 17 against the Los Angeles Rams. But don't feel sorry for him -- he doesn't feel sorry for himself.

He gave his now-famous "thumbs up" to his teammates as he was being taken off the field 10 months ago. And that's the attitude he has maintained through two operations, a life-threatening blood clot and the hard work that has resulted in bench-pressing 225 pounds, lifting 90-pound dumb bells, pressure-gripping 25 pounds and being able to stand up in a standing stall with his legs strapped in for long stretches. He's still smiling.

He now is able to wiggle his toes and has feeling in his legs. The ultimate goal: To walk again. The odds may be great as doctors search for a cure for paralysis, but Utley still has the athlete's mentality that no challenge is too big and that he can rehabilitate his way through this.

Utley maintains not being able to walk "is just temporary. Nobody has said, 'You're going to walk again.' Nobody has a crystal ball. I don't know and they don't know. My belief is I will and that's what I plan on doing.

"At 6-6, 310, there wasn't much I couldn't do. You couldn't keep me from doing it. I did what I wanted, when I wanted. Who was going to stop me? Now, who's going to stop me from doing what I want to get better?"

Utley always has been a character, a fun-loving, free-spirited guy. He hasn't changed. "God is dealing me cards right now and I'm just playing them," he said.

The only time he ever cursed in front of his mother was when doctors told him he wouldn't walk again. Among other things, he told the doctors to "get the hell out of here. Don't tell me or anybody else they can't do something. That's wrong. Say you have a lot of work ahead of you, you got to push this up, you got a challenge ahead of you."

Utley, 26, suffered a traumatic blow to the C-6 and C-7 vertebrae in his neck when he fell on his head blocking Los Angeles' David Rocker.

Rocker had jumped trying to knock down Erik Kramer's pass and came down on Utley, who fell and said the point of impact was near his forehead.

"I knew I needed to see a trainer and knew I needed to see him now," Utley recalled. "My legs were burning. Think of the hottest water you ever stuck your hand in and triple that."

His next step will be "gaiting" -- being able to move along with the use of crutches and braces. "It ain't normal," he said. "But it beats sitting in a damn chair all day."

Utley was in town to attend last night's seventh annual Great Sports Legends dinner at the Waldorf to benefit the Marc Buoniconti Fund/Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Utley has formed the Mike Utley Foundation to raise funds to help in the fight against paralysis and the Miami Project will benefit. All proceeds from NFL Properties-licensed "Thumbs Up" shirts, caps, etc., will be donated to the Utley Foundation. Utley, meanwhile, intends to spend six months a year rehabilitating at the Miami Project.

He is living with his girlfriend in Denver, near Craig Hospital where he was transferred shortly after the accident. He moved into an apartment on April 1 and says he can get through a day 95 percent by himself. He drives a van that the Lions helped him get that "kicks butt," Utley said. He also bought a high-performance car. "I drive it and away I go," he said.

Financially, he's doing fine. Utley doesn't worry too much about money. As long as he has $20 in his pocket for hamburgers and beer, he's happy. He's not thrilled that his weight dropped from 310 to 220, but thanks to work in the weight room, it's back to 240.

Initially, he couldn't hold a napkin. He couldn't pop the top off a beer can. "I couldn't cut my own damn steak," he said. "Talk about ticking a guy off."

He has seen tapes of the play. And didn't flinch. "Life goes on," he said.

Utley was inundated with letters. One of them sticks in his mind. It was from a 6-year-old boy. "It started: 'I'm sorry you got injured, Mr. Utley. If I could I would switch my legs for your legs so I can watch you play one more time,' " Utley said.

Utley has shown tremendous courage. His attitude is inspirational. "I still do the same stuff I did before," he said. "It just takes five more minutes to get there. I understand that I'm in a wheelchair. But I don't accept that I can't go out and push myself around."

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