Sports are a funny thing. At times you’re reminded how utterly unimportant they are in the grand scheme of life. At other moments, sport can serve as a profound and incredibly meaningful venue to forge memories, build bonds and showcase character. So, it’s strange that in randomly perusing a “this day in sports” site, aimlessly searching for blog post inspiration, I stumbled upon a happening in sports that somehow captures so much of the good in an otherwise “tragic” event.
For those sports fans of my age, there is little doubt they recall why November 17, 1991 is an unforgettable day. I need only mention his name: Mike Utley. If you’re like me, you remember watching the Lions-Rams game and staring blankly at the screen at a motionless third-year lineman on the turf in Detroit for what seemed like an eternity. It was clear the injury was severe. Yet, as he was carted off, a crowd that had gone silent(in the stadium and in living rooms across the country) rose to its feet with cheers on account of a simple but extremely telling gesture: Utley managed to direct his two thumbs up.
His fractured vertebrae would later confirm paralysis and, technically, bring him the label of quadriplegic. Yet, it has done little to keep the 6′ 6 Utley down. Only a year after the injury, Utley worked to establish the Mike Utley Foundation, a non-profit organization that has raised money for now nearly two decades towards the ultimate goal to find a cure for paralysis.
Over the past 19 years, Utley has himself worked tirelessly in therapy to the point where he has “completely functional muscles” in his upper extremities. He continues to push himself in rehab with the help of advanced biofeedback therapy designed to re-teach muscles to function and stimulate increased/new movement.
Not to get all cliche, but Mike Utley epitomized the “warrior mentality” you often hear NFL players current and former talk about during his playing days. He was an old-school offensive lineman who worked his way into a starting role after being taken in the third round of the 1989 NFL Draft out of Washington St. All you have to do is hear him discuss his reaction and approach following a serious injury incurred during his rookie season with the Lions in 1989 (from “Living for a Cure,” Washington State Magazine, Winter 2010):
In the fifth game of the 1989 season, Utley broke his leg so badly that, despite several attempts to walk off the field under his own power, he had to be carried off.
“When a man walks across the white line to the field of battle, he walks off,” he says. “Right then and there, I promised myself this will never happen again, not to Mike Utley. I got carried off and I made a promise this will never happen again.”
Two years later, on November 17, 1991, Utley wouldn’t get the chance. Ever since he’s had a singular goal:
“My goal is to walk off Ford Field,” Utley says. “To get off that 25-yard line and walk off that white line. I have to close this chapter in Mike Utley’s book and that is walking off Ford Field.
“Am I there yet to walk off Ford Field? No sir. But am I closer today than where I was 19 years ago? Yes, sir, I am.
“One day, somehow, some way.”
Here’s to Mike Utley crossing that white line again. I’m sure most of America would be ready with a few thumbs up to honor the accomplishment. Although, his efforts have certainly already earned so much more.
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About the Author: Cecilio's Scribe is the founder of The Legend of Cecilio Guante and a generally pessimistic fan of the Mets, Jets, Knicks and Rangers. A fine NYC-based gentlemen who hones his marketing skills as his primary trade by day. Husband, chef, father of a newborn and after-hours blogger by night. Proud alum of the mighty Big Red of Cornell. University. Hot sauce devotee. Staunch protester of the continued wussifcation of American sports. Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick.