The man behind the desk marked “Patient Information” looked up at the next customer, his eyes widening slightly, as if to say, “This one must be a football player.”
“I’m here to see my buddy,” said Roman Fortin.
The man checked the list, then gave Fortin a red pass and pointed him toward the intensive-care unit. Fortin, dressed in blue jeans and a white shirt and a blue-jeans jacket, lumbered toward the elevator in a nervous hurry, past the cafeteria and the flower shop and the newspaper boxes, one of which carried the headline: “Utley May Never Walk Again.”
Fortin pressed the elevator button and stared as it lit. He had been on the sideline when it happened Sunday, the first play of the fourth quarter. Initially, he cheered with the crowd, because the Lions had scored the go-ahead touchdown. But wait. Where was Utley, his long-haired lineman buddy, his roommate on the road? How come he wasn’t running back with the rest of them, shaking his fists?
Then Fortin looked out and saw why: Utley’s massive body was a stiff lump in the middle of the field, the referees were kneeling over him, tapping his arms, and then the paramedics ran out with a stretcher and Fortin ran out, too. Three minutes. Five minutes. No movement. Utley’s legs were dead. He said he couldn’t feel them. Orders were shouted. Don’t touch his neck! Leave the helmet on!
“You’ll be OK,” Fortin told his friend, even as they tied Utley to a stretcher with enough tape to rope a steer. They wheeled him away, put him on an ambulance, and the game continued.
Now Fortin marched his big body down the quiet hospital hallway, his feet slapping against the squeaky-clean shine. “I gotta let Mike know I’m here. I just want to tell him, you know . . .” Utley and Fortin: The buddy system
What do you tell him? What do you say? That it was worth it? That everything will be OK? Neither is true. Even as Fortin pushed the door and softly entered the intensive-care room and stood over his friend who was flat on the bed and whispered, “Hey, Mike, how’s it going?” and Mike mumbled, “Hey, Roman” — even then, both knew things were far from OK. The clock was ticking on Utley. Every minute that passed without improvement was another dollar on the square that says he never walks again. That is the ugly, brutal truth.
So is this: Football is a bloody business, where knees explode and arms pop out of sockets, and now and then, even parts of the spine snap and rupture into little pieces. Naturally, this morning, people are screaming about the violence of the sport — even though Utley’s injury was the result of a freakish fall, not a hit — and of course, they are right. But what good will that do Utley now?
Here, Tuesday morning, was something that would help him more. Fortin, his fellow lineman, his friend. They met last year. They lifted weights together. They went to gun clubs together and shot handguns. And lest you think everything they did was high-testosterone, know that Fortin also brought Utley, a 25-year-old bachelor, home to his wife and kids — this wild giant with the page-boy haircut, the motorcycles, the heavy-metal music, and here he was going with the family to Pizza Hut.
Nobody really knew these guys. They weren’t star players. Offensive linemen never are. “I would have liked Mike whether he played football or not,” Fortin said. “You like somebody, you like him.” Real life needs more happy endings
Fortin stayed in the room, hovering over his friend. Utley said he wished they would help him sit up. He also said he was hungry, and asked Fortin if his wife “could make me some of those chocolate chip cookies.” Fortin smiled.
They talked very little about football. They talked more about God, and hope, and how he would beat this thing, you’ll see.
And finally, visiting hours were over. “I told him that I loved him, and that I was praying for him,” Fortin said in the hallway. “His spirits are real
good and, um . . . I feel a lot better.”
Fortin tapped the wall. He fidgeted. He had just seen his buddy stuck on tubes and machinery, and now he was trying not to cry. “You hear about stuff like this,” he said, “but it never means anything until it happens to you or one of your friends.”
And he left. A few hours later, doctors made the sad announcement: Utley had not improved. In all likelihood, he would never walk again.
Last Friday, two days before their final game together, Fortin and Utley went to a movie. They usually chose action films (naturally) but this time they just ran into any theater, didn’t even know what was playing, and wound up watching “The Fisher King” — “An intellectual movie,” Fortin moaned — and the whole time, Utley kept teasing. “Great choice, Roman. Really great choice.”
Slapping and joking, they barely noticed the scene near the end of the film, in which Robin Williams lies hospitalized, in a coma, and Jeff Bridges sits over him and cries, realizing just how good a friend he might lose. Because it is Hollywood, Williams naturally awakes, he fully recovers, and the final scene has the two men laughing together in Central Park.
You think about Mike Utley, paralyzed for life, and you watch Roman Fortin trying not to cry in the hospital lobby, and you say to yourself, if only life worked out like the movies. If only it did.