Sep. 23–The most remarkable thing about Mike Utley is that he says his life really didn’t change on Nov. 17, 1991 — yet admittedly everything did.
With a Pontiac Silverdome crowd watching in concerned silence — and with players from two teams on their knees — some of the longest minutes of a National Football League broadcast ticked off as Utley lay still on the artificial turf while he was treated by medical personnel.
Utley, a former Washington State University football player, was on the offensive line for the Detroit Lions that day. He was hit by a routine blow that would ultimately leave him in a wheelchair.
Yet the accident, which robbed him of his many athletic gifts, has transformed Utley into one of the most compelling figures in sports today.
Utley, 40, is an articulate and energetic personality who has been featured on HBO’s “Inside the NFL” and the Outdoor Life Network series “Fearless,” as well as in numerous print articles. He sees his current leadership role for quadrapilegics as another facet of a life’s work in which he has always wanted to be the best at anything he tackles.
“When people ask me have I changed much, no, outside of being 80 pounds lighter, I haven’t changed much from when I got hurt to what I am now,” Utley said in Spokane before a recent motivational appearance. “What has changed (is) the ability to articulate using the words to say or to show what I am actually physically doing. … What has changed for me from when I got hurt to now, is being able to explain it.”
Utley is using his same single-minded determination to reach a pair of goals — one personal and one greater.
He wants to some day walk off the turf at Detroit’s new football stadium, Ford Field — under his own power, without assistance.
“No matter what, before that day I always walked off the field,” said Utley, who is 6-foot-6 and had a playing weight of 312 pounds. “That was the toughest part.”
Toward that end, Utley pushes himself to defy the medical odds. He has progressively regained more and more sensation in his lower body through determination and physical training that includes weight lifting, martial arts and cardiovascular training.
But that is not Utley’s primary focus. More important to him is the work he does to help find a cure for spinal paralysis.
Next Saturday, Utley will host a series of bicycle rides near Wenatchee as a fundraiser for his foundation. The Dam2Dam Thumbs Up! Bike Tour is an annual event that has attracted major corporate sponsors, including Microsoft’s Xbox 360, in its fourth year of existence.
Former Tour de France winner and American cycling legend Greg LeMond will be at this year’s ride, and a clinic for hand cyclists will feature former Bloomsday wheelchair winner Craig Blanchette.
Riders will raise money through pledges to support the Mike Utley Foundation. The nonprofit entity has no full-time employees and is run by Utley, his wife, Dani, and one unpaid volunteer out of the couple’s home in Orondo, Wash.
Utley hopes to raise enough money to encourage the commercial development of a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine to help treat spinal cord injuries.
“Ultimately what I would like to see have done is an MRI machine developed that can scan individual cells,” said Utley. “So, for example, when you do a scan of a spinal cord — when you’re in there you can find out what cell is bad, which is dead, which is good.”
Such technology would allow doctors to direct treatment to undamaged cells through stem-cell methods that are not a focus of Utley’s fundraising.
“My goal is to raise half a million dollars on this (Dam2Dam) event alone,” he said, “and to find an R&D (research and development) company to match me every year to develop an MRI machine to do this. That’s how I’m going to get up out of this chair and walk across Ford Field.”
Mike and Dani Utley field inquiries from newly disabled people who are having trouble adapting to their new lives. But Utley doesn’t coddle them; he’s intolerant of those who don’t exploit their potential, including those who have become disabled.
“Talk to me once you learn to get up from the pity party,” he said. “Once they get over all the people wanting to help … once those people are gone … the reality is you have to look yourself in that mirror and say, ‘I like myself still.’ ”
The same desire that caused Utley to rise at 4 a.m. every day and build himself into an All-American at WSU and play three years in the NFL is what drives him to accomplish his goals today. And he sets the bar high.
“Winning is living,” he said. “I’m not talking about surviving; that’s not winning. You survive at the beginning, then once you survive you choose to win.”
When doctors told him he would never walk again, Utley said he kicked them out of his hospital room. Later, when he was in a rehab hospital trying to put on a shoe and it dropped to the ground, he barked at his therapist to let him get it done on his own.
“Let me win!” he recalls telling the therapist as his mother watched in silence. Ten minutes later and with great struggle, Utley got the job done on his own.
Utley satisfies his wild streak by skiing, scuba diving and spending time on his speedboat and jet skis at his home on the Columbia River.
He is financially self-sufficient due to a settlement with the Lions.
His outlook has made Utley a sought-after motivational speaker for high school athletes.
Utley has already accomplished one milestone in his long journey: He took seven assisted steps in 1999, eight years after his injury. He has returned to Detroit’s field several times since his injury — most recently for the Super Bowl last January — but hasn’t yet been ready to walk off the field, although there have been encouraging signs of improvement.
Biofeedback shows evidence of improved neurological function for each of the 13 years he has used the therapy. He has gone from having limited function in his hands right after the injury to full upper-body function. He has noticed gradual improvement in his lower-body strength.
But whether he walks fully again or not, Utley is already creating an indelible legacy.
“The No. 1 thing that I want people to realize is that I have never quit,” he said. “As an athlete, I’ve set goals. Injured athletes are engineered and designed to come back. That’s what I am: I am an injured athlete that’s going to come back.”
By Jeff Bunch, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.