‘Here we go again’: Paralyzed in a 1991 NFL game, ex-Washington State lineman Mike Utley stays determined as he battles new complications
On an autumn afternoon in 1991, Mike Utley got 60,000 football fans on their feet just by raising his right thumb.
Paralyzed with a spinal cord injury, Utley was immobilized from head to toe on a stretcher and wheeled toward a dangerous future.
Utley, already knowing something was going terribly wrong and that he was about to have the fight of his life, gave a thumbs up. The gesture embodied Utley’s defiant determination.
Such dangers have come back into the focus of the country in recent weeks after Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin suffered an on-field cardiac arrest.
Injuries and recoveries vary greatly, of course, but it’s time to ask: What happens to those who have taken a dramatic fall when the cameras and spotlights are focused on other areas?
After that Detroit Lions game 31 years ago, stories of Utley’s determined rehabilitation surfaced occasionally. Accompanying images showed Utley lifting weights, skiing and diving, proof that the Washington State All-American was still living up to the demands of his oversized personality.
In a recent phone interview, it became clear that Utley hasn’t changed his erratic, carefree mental approach. Self-pity is obviously something for “Wusses” – one of his favorite mocking terms.
The suspect may wonder if his outlook is affected bravado, but it is actually ingrained to the source of his dreams. Never, he said, over the decades has there ever been a dream of him being in a wheelchair.
The latest part of this Utley update, however, is that he’s recovering from what he calls “another bump on the way.” It sounds even more ominous.
In August 2018, a serious spinal infection led to four additional surgeries. His back was open almost the length of his spine. Several vertebrae were removed and surgeons implanted what he calls “a thing the size of a Red Bull can” along with a series of rods between his shoulder blades.
All four extremities are now affected, limiting strength and mobility in his upper body. The overall effect? “It’s almost like I’m starting[from scratch]… like I’ve done before.”
The doctors had no idea what led to the infection. “It happens and you have to deal with it,” Utley said. “My parents taught us that you have to stand on your own two feet. Football also teaches you that.”
Utley and his wife, Danielle, relocated from central Washington to Hurricane, Utah so she could care for their ailing mother. Your days are incredibly busy.
After years of being “fairly independent” for Mike, “the last round of surgeries has really limited him,” Danielle said. “(But) he’s like, ‘Okay, here we go again,’ and he’s doing what he has to do to be better tomorrow than he is today. Mentally he is set that way.”
The original injury came during a fairly typical game for an offensive lineman, nothing dirty or against the rules. Such risks, he said, were part of the pact he made when he came to the league.
“I paid the price — that wheelchair stuff,” he said. “(But) nothing negative to say about the NFL. The whole NFL was great. I tell people that football has given me more than it has taken. I would do it again.”
He specifically quoted former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the late Lions owner William Clay Ford, Sr. “They took care of me from day one. Crossing this white line (on the pitch) has consequences. I accepted them and deal with them every day.”
As does his 21-year-old wife, who appears to be the ideal partner for Utley. He listed her resume as an emergency medical technician and lifeguard: firefighter, paramedic, aeronautical medic. She was also an assistant coroner.
And when it comes to getting involved in Utley’s favorite pastimes, gossip and competing, she gives as best she can.
“She’s got some vinegar and that’s the biggest thing in the world,” he said. “I absolutely love this.”
On their first date, Utley issued an honestly self-identifying warning. “I told her; I’m 6-6… I’m (a) selfish, chauvinistic, ankle-length Neanderthal.”
Apparently she saw qualities that transcended his salesmanship.
“He’s just larger than life,” she said. “He’s got this ingredient X that nobody else has, he’s amazing.”
When asked to elaborate on this, Danielle managed to capture the unspeakable. “There is a word I love, ‘sisu’. It is Finnish and there is no English (translation). It is a hardness that is almost indescribable. That’s how I look at him.”
Wikipedia Helps: Sisu is exceptional determination in the face of extreme adversity and courage shown in situations where success is unlikely…to rise against the odds and show courage and determination.
For three decades, Utley has epitomized the term – with an added dose of humor and audacity.
But it is just as difficult to describe a woman who is so impressed by her husband’s character that she searches foreign languages until she arrives at a worthy definition.
When it came to the meaning of their relationship, Utley issued an injunction not to make this column “sloppy.”
Sorry big guy, it took inner steel to do what you did on the field and more now, literally. But it wasn’t a solo, and that makes this tale of the Neanderthal man and the lifesaver a real long-distance love story.
“I make it easy for myself, but it’s hard,” he said. “You have to look in the mirror every day and be yourself and have good people around you. People say it’s about the journey and you have to enjoy the journey.”
Utley is 57 years old and has been in a wheelchair longer than he was able to walk. He has more gray in his hair, he said, and the characteristic cascade of hair that falls past his shoulders has been cropped because he can no longer brush it.
“With these chopsticks and everything, it’s harder,” he said of the realities he faces now, admitting further recovery may depend on medical science “someday coming up with a magic pill, God willing.” produces.
Until then? “All you can do is face what lies ahead, play the cards you’ve been dealt, and then be thankful for what you have. You do what you have to do to get where you want to be while still remaining honorable and respectable…”
An admirable code for life. But because he’s Mike Utley, he was quick to add a caveat.
“…but you don’t have to be a wimp.”
The Mike Utley Foundation (www.MikeUtley.org) funds research, treatment and support for people with spinal cord injuries.