DETROIT — If you were looking for the most meaningful story of Super Bowl week, it wasn’t at the NFL’s annual Media Day extravaganza yesterday, where thousands of reporters gathered to question the Seahawks and Steelers.
The best story was a mile away, where one of the most inspirational players to ever put on a helmet sat in a wheelchair at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan.
More than 14 years after being paralyzed on a field not far from here, former Lions offensive lineman Mike Utley was back in Detroit.
He met with several other wheelchair-bound patients, many of them just coming to grips with their situations. He counseled the parents of a 21-year-old man who was paralyzed from the waist down 18 days ago in a snowmobile accident. He shared his story with a 26-year-old former college football player who was paralyzed three years ago in a motorcycle crash.
They all listened intently as Utley told of how far he has come since Nov. 17, 1991, when he fell awkwardly on his head in a game against the Los Angeles Rams and fractured the sixth and seventh Cervical Vertebrae.
“I’ve earned the right to be here today,” Utley said. “Watching these kids here has been phenomenal, because they’re earning the right to be here. It’s a matter of putting your feet on the ground every single day and making something happen that didn’t happen yesterday.”
Utley, 40, has made phenomenal improvement since suffering the injury that changed his life forever. At the time, about all he could do was give a “thumbs up” sign to more than 60,000 fans at the Silverdome, many of whom wept as he was taken off the field.
He took his first steps in February 1999 and, although he is paralyzed from the waist down, now can walk with the aid of braces for short distances. His upper body is incredibly strong, and he participates in a wide variety of sports – martial arts, weight lifting, power-boat racing, target shooting.
“This injury cannot change me unless I allow it to, and I will never do that,” Utley said. “It won’t change who Mike Utley was, who he is today, who he will be tomorrow. Not for any reason. A spinal-cord injury cannot allow you to stop.”
Utley, who was 6-6 and 288 pounds, was one of the Lions’ most promising linemen before he was cut down in only his third NFL season. But his remarkable recovery and unceasing efforts to raise money for a spinal-cord injury cure through the Mike Utley Foundation may have given his life more meaning than if he had never been hurt.
“He’s been an amazing inspiration to all of us,” said Lomas Brown, a former Lions teammate. “He was upbeat from the start when he got hurt. It was awesome to see his strength.”
Brown remembers going with several teammates to visit Utley at a nearby hospital shortly after the injury.
“The first thing he said when we walked in the room was ‘I don’t want any of you guys feeling sad for me,'” Brown said. “To hear someone say something like that, all of us took so much encouragement from it.”
As soon as the players left the room, Brown said, they all cried.
Utley will be at Sunday’s game, pulling for his hometown Seahawks. He grew up in Seattle and lives about three hours east in a town called Wenatchee. He wakes up at about 4 a.m. each day and puts himself through hours of physical activity.
“When it first happened, my hands were curled and I was slouched down,” Utley said. “But it’s a matter of pushing yourself, making yourself do things you need to do. I show people what can be done if you earn it. It’s hard, but you know that the bottom line is if you don’t do it today, you won’t be any further along tomorrow.”
Utley still loves football and watches it all the time.
“It’s the greatest sport in the world,” he said. “Football is the only sport where you have a 350-pound guy, a 250-pound guy and a 180-pound guy all playing at the same time. There’s no other sport that has the disparity of athleticism that football has.”
He does miss the game, but only once can he remember any trace of bitterness. It was Aug. 8, 2004.
“I’ve never said, ‘Why me?’ but the only time I ever felt anything for a split-second was a moment when I was watching [former teammate] Barry Sanders get inducted into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “He was up there wearing that gold coat, and it was totally awesome. For one second, one split-second, I looked up there and I said, ‘This wheelchair will never allow me to be up there where Barry is.'”
The moment passed, and Utley moved on with his life.
“I wish I could have gotten that gold coat,” he said. “But that’s OK. There’s other things I’ll get a gold coat for. It just won’t be for being a professional ballplayer.”
To the people who met Utley yesterday, he already has the gold coat.
“Being a former football player and seeing what he went through, it’s an inspiration,” said Jason Feasel of Grand Rapids, Mich., who played at Ferris (Mich.) State. “He’s a guy who motivates you to do even more. To meet him is incredible. My dream got cut short, and now I can’t play football, but I can still live a productive life.”
Utley can think of no greater tribute. “Hearing things like that makes me realize that what I’ve done in the past is right, what I’m doing today is right and what I’m doing tomorrow is right,” he said. “The way I look at it, the whistle hasn’t blown until the final tick of the clock. Until that time, I’m going to push as hard as I can every single day.”
Words to live by, whether you’re in a wheelchair or not.
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.