(This story was originally published in Nov. 2021)
This week marks the 30th anniversary of one of the darkest moments in the history of the Detroit Lions franchise.
Nov. 17, 1991 was the day Lions lineman Mike Utley lost the use of his legs.
“An athlete, a man, walks on the field of battle, he walks off the field of battle, and this time doggonit I broke a promise to myself, and that was a big deal,” said Utley. “I heard from the fellas, ‘Hey Mike we’re gonna get this one for you, hang in there.’ Then I heard from the folks in Detroit. And I wanted to let them know the best way, the only way I could, was to be able to raise my hand up and give them a thumbs up ... that I will be back.”
Utley recalled the feeling. He went down after what looked like an otherwise routine blocking play in the game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Pontiac Silverdome. A rams player had ended up over top of him, driving his chin into the turf.
“This time I lost strength. I never lost strength before, and when I was able to get on my back it was bad, and I knew it.”
In the blink of an eye a pro football player’s life was changed forever. Now 30 years later, Utley doesn’t want your sympathy and he doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him.
“Just suck it up buttercup and do what you gotta do -- man up, put the pants on and attack the situation,” he said. “Am I going to let emotions change the way I do things and keep me from doing something? I never have and I never will, my good man, never.”
If you’re wondering about memories he may have from that time, he said Thanksgiving 1991 and Lomas Brown on national TV is a moment that’s ingrained in him.
“You are as big a part of this team today as you have ever been. Thanks for your courage, your inspiration and your strength. We’re all praying for you, we love you, and thumbs up, Mike. We love you,” Brown said at the time.
Utley cherishes that moment.
“I’ve never forgotten that. I had an all-pro (player) take the time, and the team get together, all right at that moment. I have never forgotten what they did for me at that time. And when people ask me what do I do on days when I get down, I think of that moment, when Lomas did what he did,” said Utley.
Brown remembers it well, too.
“I get kind of choked up about it because of the significance of it, what it meant to us and what Mike meant to us as a team. You know, how he propelled us the rest of that season,” said Brown.
The more you spend time with Mike Utley you come to realize he’s one of a kind. Utley isn’t like most. He freely admits that. And with all the physical pain he has endured you have to wonder if he ever thought of giving up.
“You mean check out? Never once have I ever thought about checking out,” he said.
‘Mike Utley will never be a burden on society’
He spends his days in Hurricane, Utah with his wife Dani. The past 30 years have not been easy. Blood clots in 1991 nearly ended his life. Twice in 2018 he contracted an infection in his vertebrae. Steel rods were inserted and life went on. Utley makes it clear there’s only one way he can live.
“The bottom line is I’m still here. I’m still able to function, be a productive part of society. Mike Utley will never be a burden on society. I gave my word on that,” he said.
Remember, Utley was robbed of his physical skills at the age of 25, so one might expect him to be bitter or angry at what happened to him. But there’s not a hint of that or a hint of emotion at his misfortune.
“I have no regrets. I would do it all over again ... I might have a hamstring pull the play before (laughs) but, no, I would do it all over again,” he said.
Three times a week, for an hour each time, Utley stretches his body out and is standing. It’s the work he feels he has to put in for the moment when he can walk again.
“A lot of people will wait for a cure, and they have passed. I will live for one. I had a goal, and I still do, of one day walking off Ford Field. It’s just taking me a little longer than I expected,” he said.
He has an attitude not seen in many people. And his plan of walking again is fresh in his mind, even after 30 years. That feeling doesn’t exist just when he’s awake.
“Are you asking when I do dream do I think about me being in a wheelchair? Never have. There are days that I forget I’m even in a wheelchair. I’m the same guy I was on Nov. 17 when I stepped on the field, and by God I’m the same guy who was wheeled off, just not the same athlete.”
More coverage: Mike Utley page