In 1991, Mike Utley’s life changed forever. At the peak of his football career, Utley was a monster of a man at 6-foot-6, 288 pounds. He was an offensive lineman, one of the guys who protect the quarterback from getting hit. During a game between the Detroit Lions and the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 17, 1991, Utley, while in pass protection, fell awkwardly and was never able to get up and walk off the field.
Mike Utley’s football career
Mike Utley is a graduate of Kennedy Catholic High School in Washington and went on to play college football at Washington State. During Utley’s senior year at Washington State in 1988, the Cougars defeated Houston 24-22 in the Aloha Bowl. The victory was Washington State’s first bowl win since 1916.
As a senior, Utley earned consensus All-American honors, becoming the second Washington State player to do so. He is a member of the Washington State Hall of Fame, elected in 2004. Utley was also elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
Utley was a third-round selection in the 1989 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions and became a starter right away. He battled injuries in his first two seasons, the first sidelining him for the remaining games of his rookie season. Utley was again injured in 1990, battling rib and shoulder injuries. In 1991, Utley suffered a tragic injury that ended his playing career and altered his life forever.
Mike Utley’s devastating injury
Against the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 17, 1991, Mike Utley’s Detroit Lions were moving the ball downfield. Utley anchored an offensive line that was run blocking, pass blocking and doing whatever it took to help the Lions’ offense rolling.
On one play, Utley’s opponent, David Rocker, was battling against the Lions’ big man in an attempt to get at Detroit quarterback Erik Kramer. Utley fell awkwardly and onto his head, breaking his fifth, sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae. He was motionless, unable to move.
With the home crowd at the Silverdome eerily quiet, Utley was placed on a stretcher. He then gave those fans a thumbs-up sign, a gesture that would go on to symbolize Utley’s strength and courage. Utley’s football career ended that afternoon, but the first chapter of the rest of his life was just beginning.
A positive outlook and the Mike Utley Foundation
Mike Utley’s injury ended his football career, but not his love for life. He is paralyzed from the waist down and said that day on Nov. 17, 1991, was life-changing, not life-defining.
“It was a life-changing moment but not life-defining,” Utley said back in 2016. “(My injury) changed the direction of my life. It wasn’t the most pivotal moment of my life, though. It ended my career as a football player, but Nov. 17, 1991, didn’t change who Mike Utley was. It just changed the direction of his path.”
Utley recalls the injury and knew something was wrong as soon as he was on the ground. “All ballplayers, from the time you’re in Pee-Wee to the pros, you get these things called stingers,” Utley said in a 2015 interview. “You get raw nerves, a burning sensation in your arms, legs and so forth. You know what it is and you deal with it. But this time, not only did I have the burning, but I lost muscle function.”
In 1992, Utley created the Mike Utley Foundation with the hopes of one day finding a cure for paralysis.
Mike Utley has zero regrets
Mike Utley holds no grudges, nor does he ever regret stepping on the football field. He said, if given the chance, he would do it all over again.
“It’s a choice we all chose to cross that white line,” Utley told the AP in 2016. “No. 1 it is our personal responsibility to take accountability for our own actions on and off the field.”
Through it all, he’s remained the same person. He may no longer be Mike Utley the football player, but he’s still Mike Utley. Through all the pain and challenges he has endured, he still maintains his sense of humor.
“When you ask me personally what I think of the game, I miss it tremendously and I would go do it all over again even though I’m sitting in here a crippled dude,” he said.