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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU’s Mike Utley to be inducted into College Football Hall of Fame

Former Washington State and Detroit Lions offensive lineman Mike Utley is one of four WSU players in the College Football Hall of Fame. (Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Mike Utley was recruited to Washington State by coach Jim Walden, setting in motion a career that would encompass an All-American selection, a 1988 Aloha Bowl MVP, a third-round selection in the NFL draft and would culminate with Friday’s selection to the College Football Hall of Fame.

As his former coach, Walden has many stories about a player he first scouted during a basketball game at Kennedy High – “there wasn’t anything good about him in basketball, but he ran up and down the court for two hours and never asked any quarter.”

But none resonate with the former WSU coach more than something that happened once Utley’s NFL career was over – ended in his third season when a back injury paralyzed him from the chest down.

Walden, then coaching at Iowa State, invited Utley to come speak to his team. Campus administrators heard he was going to be on campus and arranged for him to give two more speeches, to the student body.

“I shook his hand and his fingers were just, like numb,” Walden recalls. “Kind of folded together. And he made an effort to shake my hand, and I shook his hand more than anything, and he said, ‘Coach, I’ll make you a promise. The next time you shake my hand, I’ll shake your hand.’”

Given at times impossible nature of paralysis, Walden would not have blamed the right guard for not making good on his promise. But when he attended a function honoring Utley a few years later in Wenatchee, he found that the All-American’s iron grip had returned.

“He damn near squeezed my hand off,” Walden said. “Little wins in life can be so big. And that was a big win, I thought. That’s a national-championship caliber win. He looked right at me and said ‘I told you so.’”

That handshake will get a lot of use in 2016, as Utley will receive plenty of plaudits for becoming the fourth Cougar player to be inducted into the College Football Hall of fame, joining Glen Edwards, Mel Hein and Reuben Mayes.

Edwards, Hein and Utley all played on the offensive line, while Mayes was a running back. Utley was named a consensus first team All-American in 1988, paving the way for WSU’s Aloha Bowl victory over Houston, the program’s first bowl win since 1916. Utley was named the MVP of that game as the Cougars rushed for 154 yards and passed for 306.

“This is very overwhelming,” said Utley in a press release. “Washington State University and head coach Jim Walden gave me an opportunity and I told him I would give 100 percent of myself. Playing for the Cougars was a wonderful experience and hopefully I’ve been able to pay it forward.”

WSU head coaches Orin “Babe” Hollingberry, Forest “Evy” Evashevski and William “Lone Star” Dietz are also in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Utley formed the Mike Utley Foundation to financially support function-restoring treatment for spinal cord injuries and to help educate those who suffer from such injuries about rehabilitative techniques and lifestyles.

Utley is the only former Pac-8/10/12 player in the 2016 Hall of Fame class, although Colorado defensive end Herb Orvis is also a member.

“I speak for Cougars everywhere when I say how proud we are of Mike receiving this prestigious and well deserved honor,” said WSU athletic director Bill Moos. “He was a dominating player and truly one of the best to ever play the game.”

Florida State’s Derrick Brooks, Iowa State’s Troy Davis and Purdue’s Rod Woodson also join Utley in this year’s class.

The rest of the class includes LSU’s Bert Jones, UNLV’s Randall Cunningham, Ohio State’s Tom Cousineau, North Carolina’s William Fuller, Wisconsin’s Tim Krumrie, Harvard’s Pat McInally, Colorado’s Herb Orvis, Georgia’s Scott Woerner, Ashland’s Bill Royce and Nebraska Omaha’s Marlin Briscoe.