NEW YORK – A football injury 25 years ago left Mike Utley paralyzed. The former Washington State and Detroit Lions offensive lineman played before concussion protocol, targeting fouls and rule tweaks intended to make a violent game safer.
Ask him about the way the game has changed over the years and he responds with a question: “Do I have to be politically correct?”
Utley still misses football and tries to stay as close to it as he can, whether he’s attending Cougars games in Pullman or Lions games in Detroit or pee-wee games wherever. He was able to reconnect again on Tuesday as part of the National Football Foundation’s latest class to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Utley, who grew up in Seattle, was a three-time All-Pac 10 selection and an All-American as a senior in 1988 at Washington State. He was joined in the latest class of Hall of Famers by 13 players and two coaches.
- Nebraska-Omaha quarterback Marlin Briscoe
- Florida State linebacker Derrick Brooks
- Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau
- UNLV quarterback and punter Randall Cunningham
- Iowa State running back Troy Davis
- North Carolina defensive tackle William Fuller
- LSU quarterback Bert Jones
- Wisconsin defensive lineman Tim Krumrie
- Harvard tight end and punter Pat McInally
- Colorado defensive end Herb Orvis
- Ashland linebacker Bill Royce
- Georgia defensive back Scott Woerner
- Purdue defensive back Rod Woodson
- New Hampshire coach Bill Bowes
- Lycoming coach Frank Girardi
Utley, 50, was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1989 and became starter. In 1991, he suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury during a game against the Rams at the Silverdome. The injury paralyzed him from the chest down, but he famously gave a thumbs-up as he was being taken off the field.
He said players today are “stronger, they’re faster, they’re meaner, tougher than what we were back down there.” But he doesn’t think the game needs to change.
“It’s a choice we all chose to cross that white line,” Utley said. “No. 1 it is our personal responsibility to take accountability for our own actions on and off the field.”
Utley blocked for record-breaking quarterbacks Timm Rosenbach and Mark Rypien at Washington State. He said the teammate he most wanted to share his Hall of Fame news with was no longer around. Chris Dyko was killed when a car hit him while he was riding his bicycle in January 2015. Dyko played right tackle next to Utley at guard for three seasons at Washington State.
“He was my right side and we were two peas in a pod,” Utley said. “I miss him the most him not being here.”
Utley called his continued rehabilitation a lifestyle.
“I learned to cherish the moment of getting up, getting to the gym with my hand cycle. Competing with my wife in the weight room and when we go to the gun range,” Utley said. “It’s living life is what I cherish. I don’t wait for a cure, I live for one.”
The Mike Utley Foundation works to raise money and support research for the treatment of spinal cord injuries.
And when it comes to playing football, Utley said he has no regrets.
“When you ask me personally what I think of the game,” he said. “I miss it tremendously and I would go do it all over again even though I’m sitting in here a crippled dude.”