by | Jan 11, 1992 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Bitter. Isn’t that what you’d expect from a man who lost his body in a football game? Bitter, angry, resentful, asking himself a million times why he had to be out there that dark Sunday, banging helmets with other hired warriors and all for what — a stupid game? And now he was stuck in a hospital, in a wheelchair, a halo device holding his head in place while the therapists bent his dead legs back and forth as if he were a rag doll. Bitter? Wouldn’t you be bitter? Or scared? At the very least? Scared?

“Are you scared?” someone asked Mike Utley.

“Scared of what?” he said, almost laughing. “What’s there to be afraid of? I got injured, that’s the way it goes. Every day is a new day for me now. That’s how I look at it.”

“But just a few weeks ago, you were a healthy football player, and now, well, how do you deal with it?”

“That’s my attitude, I guess. I’ve always been a positive guy. . . . I’m not gonna quit living just because I can’t walk.”

There are moments when you see the worst in people — the rudeness, the cowardice, the greed. Maybe too many moments like that. But then comes a moment when you see the best, the magnificent depth of the human spirit.

Mike Utley broke his silence on Friday, two days before his Lions teammates play the biggest game of their professional lives, the NFC championship in Washington. He will not be there. He will be 2,000 miles away, in a Denver rehab hospital, wheeled in front of a big-screen TV, lacking even the ability to applaud. When the game is over, his ordeal will not be. Paralyzed, he could remain that way for life, and for a kid like Utley, life is a long time, another 40 or 50 years, maybe.

So when the reporters gathered for a conference call in the Lions’ offices Friday, and the camera lights ignited, and the tape recorders hummed, and all eyes focused on this little wooden box which would transmit Utley’s voice to the room full of questioners and a city full of sympathetic listeners, well, no one was quite sure how he’d sound. The answer was surprising. He sounded . . . OK.

“Things are fantastic,” he said. “The therapists here don’t let you get away with anything. . . . And I’ll tell you what. Making a wheelchair go straight is a lot tougher than it looks.” Remarkably casual chatter

Ever since the day he went down at the Silverdome — Nov. 17, on a touchdown play against the Rams, a freak accident, his head hit the turf at a funny angle and he lay there, a crumpled heap, five minutes, eight minutes, until they carried him off and he gave that wonderful, sad thumbs-up sign — ever since that day, people around this city, this country, even far parts of the world, have wondered how Mike Utley is doing. The buzz from teammates who had called and passed the phone around was that the lineman, who loved motorcycles and hard rock music, was going to surprise a lot of people. This was not the end of him.

“Can you recall anything about that play?” he was asked Friday.

“Well, when I went down I knew I needed to see a trainer. I knew it wasn’t a regular little bump. . . .”

“Are you aware of all the attention you’ve gotten?’

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “it’s flattering.”

As he spoke, the reporters began to relax, to fall into a question-and-answer patter, rapid fire, as if Utley were just another athlete on a conference call. Question: Did he have any sensation in his legs? Answer: Some days, a little. Question: Did he blame the LA player who knocked him down? Answer: No. He was just doing his job.

Such remarkably casual patter should not be overlooked, for it may be the greatest tribute to this long-haired kid from Seattle, who used to hunt wild boar, and body-slam his friends — and has told them privately that he will walk again. He could have struggled with the questions Friday. Swallowed his words, held back tears. That’s what we expected.

Instead, he sounded like a long-distance fan getting ready for the big game.

“On Sunday, I’m gonna go downstairs in front of the big screen TV, get my spot, my chips, and root ’em on like there’s no tomorrow.”

Just like one of us, huh? Tragedy changes people

And that, of course, is the lesson of Mike Utley, that he is indeed just like one of us, that we are really all the same — the fortunate who never slip on life’s wet spots, and the less fortunate who do. Utley spoke throughout the brief interview of helping other paralysis victims, and raising money though the foundation that bears his name. You couldn’t help but flash back to the Magic Johnson story. Isn’t it strange how tragedy can make a victim so valuable to his fellow man?

“A friend of mine said that one day God will reveal why He let this happen,” Utley said. “I just know something good will come out of it.”

“Hey, Mike,” a reporter said, “if you had it to do over again, would you still play football?”

Utley paused, he seemed surprised.

“Most definitely I would. I’d do the exact same thing I’ve done since I was a rug rat playing Little League. Oh, God, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Instead, it was those around him who changed: all those fans, who didn’t even know him before and now pray for his health; his teammates, who have not lost since he went down. Coach Wayne Fontes, on his way to Washington, came into the room and spoke with Utley, saying, “This one’s for you, babe.” Later Fontes was asked whether he thought his team would even be going to the championship if this tragedy hadn’t happened. He said yes.

I feel he is wrong.

What Utley taught us, and all the Lions, is that our problems are pretty small. And when you realize that, you are free to accomplish great things — even championships. As a Lion said this week, “One of us gets hurt now, we just suck it up. How can we complain after Mike?”

The phone call was ending. The reporters scribbled. A last question. What message would he have for his teammates?

“I just hope the best for them,” he said. “I want them to go out there and fight like hell.”

After Utley, do they — or any of us — really have a choice?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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