by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The crazy thing about football is that it can take you to places you never dreamed of. One minute you’re dancing in the end zone; the next, you’re surrounded by doctors asking whether you have any feeling in your legs.

There were two touchdowns scored within two minutes of Sunday’s game at the Silverdome. Both were pass plays. Both were worth six points to the Lions. Both involved guys named Mike.

The similarity ends there. For Mike Farr, it was a play he’d been waiting for his whole life, the beginning, he hopes, of great things to come.

Mike Utley can only hope it’s not the end.

Let us begin with the happier moment. Farr had been dreaming of an NFL touchdown since the days when his father, Mel, was scoring them for this same Detroit franchise back in the ’60s. Being the son of a famous running back is not the easiest of childhoods. Everyone says the same stupid things. “I hope you’re as good a player as your father.” “Maybe one day you’ll score touchdowns, too?”

Young Farr had hoped so, but his prospects looked thin. He had played receiver for UCLA, but was overlooked in the NFL draft. Nobody wanted him. Not big, not particularly fast, his only professional opportunity came in a free-agent tryout with his father’s old team, the Lions. You do strange things when it’s your only shot. Sometimes great things. By sheer toughness and desire, Farr made the squad. That was last year.

“Ever since, I’ve wondered about catching a touchdown pass,” he would say after the Lions’ 21-10 victory Sunday over the Los Angeles Rams. “I guess once you make the team, you worry that you’ll leave the game without ever getting one.”

He had gone a year and half with such bad fortune, until the fourth quarter Sunday, when the Rams came after quarterback Erik Kramer with a blitz and Kramer, having called an out-and- up pattern, knew that if he could get the ball there, Farr should be open. Man, was he open! Nobody within 10 yards. All Farr had to do was gather the ball, make like an antelope and gallop across the goal line.

Touchdown. Finally.

“I was so excited I lost track of the ball,” Farr said. “Then when I was coming off the field, I realized I wanted to give it to my mother. Every week she’s been saying, ‘This is the week you get one, this week, this week . . .’ So I ran to one of the equipment guys and said, ‘I got to have that ball.’ “

He smiled. “Everything happened so quick. It was like, wow! And it’s over
. . .” A touchdown, an injury

“Everything happened so quick, and then, whoa, he was down,” mumbled Roman Fortin, the offensive lineman. His voice was quiet. His tone was somber. He was 30 feet from Farr in the locker room, but he was talking about a whole different world. His best friend on the team, Mike Utley, the massive guard, the guy who rode the motorcycles, the guy who loved heavy-metal music, the guy who went out with Fortin’s family to Pizza Hut and, afterward, grabbed his friend and said, “Thanks,” and Fortin said, “Why?” and Utley said, “For proving to me that I’m not ready for kids yet.” That guy, his buddy, had gone down in that same fourth quarter, someone had snapped his head back and he was flat on the field, not moving, a slab of flesh.

“I ran out there when I saw him,” Fortin said. “I tried to tell him everything was OK. But I saw all the doctors around him. He wasn’t able to move his legs. And they said spinal injury. . . .”

No one is quite sure how it happened. Utley, as usual, had been pounding his body against the defensive linemen, trying to open holes and protect his quarterback. Feisty and wild — one of his teammates calls him “a raw guy” — he had already had a few swinging sessions with defensive tackle Alvin Wright. It was a good, hard afternoon of football. Then, on the first play of the final period, Kramer found Robert Clark in the end zone for a touchdown and the Lions leaped in celebration. All except Utley, who couldn’t move. The officials surrounded him. Coach Wayne Fontes ran out. Soon the doctors were taping him to a stretcher and rolling him away.

“When they carried him off on that stretcher,” said center Kevin Glover, “I saw him move his hand. He gave me the thumbs- up sign, like he wanted us to win. Can you imagine thinking about the team at a moment like that? I’m not sure I could . . .” A brutal way to live

The idea that football and war are nearly the same is really not farfetched. Not at all. When you’re victorious in war, you cannot get any higher, your heart pounds, your blood rushes. And when you go down in war, it happens swiftly and without warning. You never see the bullet. Isn’t that what they say?

So it was that Farr, 24, was surrounded by reporters long after the Sunday’s victory, smiling and telling stories. And he was still talking as Fortin tied his shoes and asked which hospital his friend was at. “It’s probably Henry Ford, right? One of those Henry Fords?”

His teammates shrugged. No one knew.

You hope Utley, 25, will be OK. What else can you do? You hear a lot about football, and sometimes you figure everyone is feeling the same thing, happy with the wins, sad with the losses. But for all the team talk, this sport is still brutal, violent and played by human beings, so that one man’s glorious afternoon can be another’s tragic moment. It’s a hell of a scary game that way. It really is.


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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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