In what was arguably the most tragic injury in Detroit sports history, on November 17, 1991 Lion offensive lineman Mike Utley was paralyzed in a game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Pontiac Silverdome.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, as Erik Kramer through a TD pass to Robert Clark, the Ram’s David Blocker leaped to block the pass and came down on Utley’s head and neck. Unable to move, Utley gave the crowd a ‘thumbs up” as he was carried off the field and transported to Henry Ford Hospital where it was determined that he had shattered his 5th, 6th, and 7th vertebrae and was now a quadriplegic.
“Thumbs up” quickly became a symbol for the Lions and their fans as the team dedicated their season to Utley. The Lions went on to win the last six games and their only playoff victory since the ’57 championship season before losing the NFC championship to Washington.
The imposing 6’6”, 302lb. All -American offensive guard from Washington State had been chosen by the Lions as the 59th pick in round three of the 1989 NFL draft. In his 1989 rookie season he became a starter to form a powerful offensive line with Lomas Brown, Eric Andolsek, and Kevin Glover to pave the lanes for rookie of the year halfback Barry Sanders.
In my interview with Mike in 2020 he shared with me what happened on the tragic play that changed his life forever.
“We were really coming together as a unit, and starting the first eleven games in 1991 I thought my voodoo injuries were over with. On that particular play thank God I was winning against my man David Rocker and we scored a touchdown. Rocker caught my shoulder and pulled me down. My head hit the turf and that was it. I thought, “(expletive), here we go again.’ As a football player we sometimes would get ‘stingers.’ I had lost sensation in my hands and hamstrings before but this was different because I could tell right away that I had lost strength. I remember our trainer Kent Falb and team physician Dr. David Collon asking me what I could feel. I never wanted to be carried off a field, it’s a personal thing. When I broke my leg as a rookie, I tried to walk off but a Viking said to me, ‘get down we could hear it break.’ I knew I was in really big trouble. I could hear the crowd clapping for me and my teammates came up and said, ‘we got this Mike.’ When I was wheeled off, I gave the thumbs up because I wanted the fans and my guys to know that I heard them. I wish I didn’t get hurt but it is what it is. “
Utley also shared with me what it was like for the first few days at Henry Ford Hospital.
“I was in the intensive care unit for the first nine days, in a step down unit for three, and then on Thanksgiving night I was back in the ICU for ten more days. My teammates Ken Dallafior, Eric Andolsek, and Shawn Bowens, all big lineman pretty similar to my size were brought to the hospital to be used as models for creating my body cast. I felt bad and am sorry I put them through that. On Thanksgiving the Lions had a television brought in so I could watch the game with my brothers and a close friend. They snuck in pizza for me and we got a little rowdy. That night it was discovered that I had threw two blood clots and was rushed back into the ICU. At one point they brought my brothers back in and I was given last rites. Almost kicked the bucket then. But I’m not the type to cry about it or piss on the campfire and then complain how cold it is. I move on very quickly. “
Despite his tragic injury, Mike Utley told me that he had no regrets about playing football and in fact missed the competition and camaraderie with his teammates.
“As a player I just absolutely loved the violence of it, the collisions. When my opponent is giving 100% and I am giving 100% what else is there my good man? One is going to win and one isn’t. You can search for that adrenaline rush after you stop playing but it can’t compete with the game of football. But I also really miss the camaraderie in the locker room. We all loved it. I have absolutely no regrets that I played football and I would do it all over again if I could.”
Utley has spent years in physical therapy and built up his upper body strength but sadly he suffered a setback a few years ago when it was discovered that he subsequently damaged other vertebrae. Despite this, he remains determined to meet the goal he made 31 years ago to one day walk off the gridiron.
Utley also continues to counsel others who have suffered spinal cord injuries while also helping to lead the Mike Utley Foundation whose main mission is to find the cure for paralysis.
When asked at the end of the interview how he would like to be remembered Utley didn’t hesitate.“The thing I want to be remembered for is that I never quit and that I earned the right to be a starter for the Detroit Lions and to be here today. Maybe one day when I meet my maker, I’ll ask why couldn’t he have let me play ten years because I sure was having a lot of fun.”