On a fall afternoon in 1991, Mike Utley brought 60,000 football fans to their feet merely by lifting his right thumb.
Paralyzed with a spinal-cord injury, Utley was immobilized head-to-toe on a gurney, being wheeled toward a perilous future.
Already knowing something was terribly wrong, and that he was in for the fight of his life, Utley raised his thumb. The gesture came to epitomize Utley’s defiant resolve.
Such dangers returned to the national focus in recent weeks after the on-field cardiac arrest suffered by Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin.
Injuries and recoveries vary widely, of course, but it remains timely to ask: What happens to those dramatically fallen once the cameras and spotlights are focused elsewhere?
After that Detroit Lions game 31 years ago, stories of Utley’s determined rehabilitation occasionally appeared. Accompanying pictures showed Utley lifting weights, skiing and scuba diving, evidence that the Washington State All-American still lived according to the demands of his outsized personality.
In a recent phone interview, it was clear that Utley hasn’t changed his no-regrets, free-wheeling mental approach. Self-pity, obviously, is for “wusses” – one of his favorite derisive terms.
The suspicious might question whether his outlook is affected bravado, but it’s actually rooted all the way down to the wellspring of his dreams. Never once, he said, has a dream included his being in a wheelchair.
The newsy portion of this Utley update, though, is that he’s recovering from a development that he calls “another bump in the road.” It sounds more ominous than that.
In August 2018, a major spinal infection led to four additional surgeries. His back was opened up nearly the length of his spine. Several vertebra were removed and surgeons implanted what he calls “a gizmo the size of a Red Bull can,” along with a series of rods between his shoulder blades.
All four extremities are now affected, limiting strength and mobility in his upper body. The overall effect? “It’s almost like starting (over) … like I did before.”
Doctors had no notion what led to the infection.
“It happens, and you’ve got to deal with it,” Utley said. “My parents taught us that you’ve got to stand on your own two feet. That’s what football teaches you, too.”
Utley and his wife, Danielle, moved from central Washington to Hurricane, Utah, so she could help care for her ailing mother. Her days are unimaginably full.
After years of Mike being “fairly independent,” the recent round of surgeries “has really restricted him,” Danielle said. “(But) he’s like, ‘ OK, here we go again,’ and he’s off doing what he has to do to be better tomorrow than he is today. Mentally, that’s how he’s geared.”
The original injury came during a fairly typical play for an offensive lineman, nothing dirty or against the rules. Such risks, he said, were part of the pact he accepted when he came into the league.
“I paid the price – this wheelchair stuff,” he said. “(But) not one negative thing to say about the NFL. The whole NFL has been great. I tell people that football has given me more than it has taken away. I’d do it again.”
He specifically cited former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the late Lions owner William Clay Ford, Sr.
“They looked after me from Day One,” Utley said. “There’s consequences for crossing that white line . I accepted them and I deal with them every day.”
As does his wife of 21 years, who seems the ideal partner for Utley. He listed her résumé as an emergency medical professional and lifesaver: firefighter, medic, flight medic. She also was a deputy coroner.
And when it comes to engaging in Utley’s favorite activities, talking smack and competing, she gives as well as she gets.
“She’s got a little vinegar to her and that’s the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “I absolutely love that.”
On their first date, Utley issued a warning, frankly self-identifying. “I told her, ‘I’m 6-6 … I’m (an) egotistical, chauvinistic, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.’ ”
She apparently saw qualities beyond his deft salesmanship.
“He’s just bigger than life,” she said. “He’s got that Ingredient X that no one else has. He’s amazing.”
Asked to elaborate, Danielle managed to capture the ineffable.
“There’s a word that I love, ‘sisu’. It’s Finnish, and there’s no English (translation). It’s a toughness that is almost indescribable. That’s how I look at him.”
Wikipedia helps: “Sisu is extraordinary determination in the face of extreme adversity, and courage that is presented in situations where success is unlikely … taking action against the odds, and displaying courage and resolution.”
For three decades, Utley has been the embodiment of the term – with additional portions of humor and audacity.
But it’s equally hard to describe a wife so awed by her husband’s character that she searches foreign languages until she arrives at a worthy definition.
When talk turned to the importance of their relationship, Utley issued an injunction against making this column “sappy.”
Sorry, big fella, it took inner steel to achieve what you did on the field, and even more so, now, literally. But it hasn’t been solo, and that makes this tale of the Neanderthal and the Lifesaver a genuine long-haul, smack-talkin’ love story.
“I make light of things, but it is hard,” he said. “You need to look in the mirror every day and be yourself, and keep good people around you. People say it’s about the journey and you (have to) enjoy the journey.”
Utley is 57, and has been in a wheelchair longer than he was ambulatory. There’s more gray in his hair, he said, and the trademark cascade of hair down past his shoulders has been trimmed because he can no longer brush it.
“It’s harder, with these rods and everything,” he said of the realities he faces, admitting that further recovery may rely on medical science coming up with “a magic pill, one day, God willing.”
Until then? “All you can do is deal with what’s in front of you, play the cards you were dealt, and then be thankful for what you have. You do what you have to do to get where you want to be, and still be honorable and respectable …”
An admirable code for life. But because he’s Mike Utley, he quickly added a caveat.
“… but you don’t have to be a wuss about it.”
The Mike Utley Foundation (www.MikeUtley.org) funds research, treatment and support for those with spinal-cord injuries.