It was great to see Mike Utley at Ford Field last week.
The former Detroit Lions lineman was the honorary captain for the game. The crowd roared when he was introduced. Then the applause continued and the crowd rose to its feet.
It has been 25 years since one play in the middle of a game against the Rams changed the course of Utley’s life, and Lions fans who witnessed it, read about it, or even saw it on TV highlights will never forget it: The thumbs up.
I know I never will.
It was November 17, 1991. I don’t remember the date by heart because I was only 10, but countless Lions fans know the date and where they were when it happened.
On the first play of the fourth quarter at the Silverdome, Utley was blocking a pass play for Lions quarterback Erik Kramer and got knocked down, hitting his head.
Utley was on the field for what seemed like hours.
He later said a burning sensation came over his entire body. His neck was broken. He had a spinal cord injury and he was paralyzed from the chest down.
This 10-year-old had never seen anything like this in a football game or any sort of sporting event. I saw baseball players get hit in the head and be on the ground for a while, but never anything where the player wasn’t moving.
Utley was loaded onto a cart and strapped down. His helmet was strapped down and for a while, after seeing it, hearing the announcers and listening to my parents, I thought he was for sure going to die. That is not what my parents or the announcers were saying, but I was 10 and jumped to conclusions.
But it really wasn’t that far to jump considering the sever spinal cord injury.
Just as I began to fear the worst, Utley did something that Lions fans will never forget. He gave the Silverdome crowd a thumbs up.
I can still picture it, and I am sure every Lions fan that saw it still can.
It has become one of the most iconic moments in Lions history, and one we wished we never had to experience.
Unfortunately, Utley wasn’t the only player to experience an injury like that, not even from the Lions. A few years later, linebacker Reggie Brown experienced a similar injury, ending his career.
In a sport like football, with the big bodies and big equipment, things like this happen. But nothing ever affected the Lions quite like Utley lying motionless on the ground. And nothing ever affected Lions fans like seeing the thumbs up.
Thinking of that thumb is inspiring and so is knowing that at age 50, Utley is still speaking and inspiring others with similar injuries.
That is why Utley was such an important part of Lions history and why he will never be forgotten.