Most people would have given up on the idea of walking again if it had been nearly two decades since they had done it last.
But almost 20 years to the day since he was paralyzed on an NFL football field, it appears as if the resolve of former Detroit Lions offensive lineman Mike Utley hardens each day in pursuit of his dream: Walking off the field at the Lions’ stadium, Ford Field.
That’s because on Nov. 17, 1991 – a date that is forever etched in Utley’s memory – a freak injury resulted in him breaking his neck and being carted off the field at the Pontiac Silverdome on a stretcher while he flashed a “thumbs up” sign to lets fans and teammates know he would be OK.
And so Utley, now 45, remains determined to walk off an NFL field one more time because, as he put it, “A man walks on the field of battle and he walks off the field of battle.”
That’s why today you will find Utley waking up each day at 5 AM about three hours east of Seattle in Wenatchee, WA, and working out vigorously – he lifts four times a week and does physical therapy twice a week – while running the Mike Utley Foundation with his wife, Dani, in hopes he will one day help find a cure for spinal cord injuries.
”It’s amazing that Utley has come this far after initially being unable to move his arms after the injury. Now he’s not only able to use his shoulders, arms and hands that he can function on his own, Utley is regularly involved in action sports and even has partial movement in his legs.
“I can walk with ankle braces, I can walk with crutches or a walker,” Utley said. “The problem is, it’s not really functional, as in to be independent, to be able to go to the grocery store. It’s still more feasible and – safety-wise – it’s more productive for me to be able to transfer into my chair and go to the mall, go shopping, get groceries, clean up around the house.”
It’s clear from talking to Utley that he’s not satisfied with any moral victories like these and will stop at nothing short of walking off Ford Field under his own power. His optimism and enthusiasm permeate every word he speaks and he’s an extremely engaging person who humorously has a penchant for speaking in the third person.
It’s impossible to set a timeline for when he will walk again since it will require a breakthrough in science, but that doesn’t stop Utley from being eternally optimistic.
“Mike Utley will walk off Ford Field, his game plan is today,” he said. “If it’s not today, it will be tomorrow.” And so on and so forth.
As such, Utley has turned his foundation into his legacy, raising money not only to further spinal cord injury research, but also to aid spinal cord injury rehabilitation and education.
Utley not only tirelessly raises money for the foundation, all proceeds raised through his corporate speaking engagements go straight to it as well (he lives off money he still receives from the Lions and the NFL). Earlier this month, Utley held his annual golf outing in Michigan to keep raising donations for the organization he started just two months after his injury.
Since Utley’s injury 20 years ago, the NFL has only grown more violent with players that are bigger, faster and stronger getting carted off on stretchers seemingly every week. You would think that if anyone would support radical rule changes such as lineman beginning plays while standing up to reduce head trauma, it would be someone whose life was forever altered by one freak collision. But that’s not Mike Utley.
“No,” Utley immediately said about potential drastic rule changes such as this. “Listen, let the fellas play. You want the best players in the world to get on that gridiron. You want the fastest and the best athletes. Let them play.”
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