Former Lion Still Dreams of Walking

By: PAT GRAHAM - Associated Press
By: PAT GRAHAM - Associated Press

DENVER (AP) -- Mike Utley's desire is to return to a Detroit Lions game one day and do what he couldn't do nearly 17 years ago -- walk off the field on his own.
The 42-year-old quadriplegic is doing everything in his power to facilitate that dream, from working out (he can bench close to 300 pounds) to raising funds for research through the Mike Utley Foundation.
"I wish I would find a Bill Gates to give me a $1 billion to move forward with actually finding a cure for paralysis," said Utley, who suffered his spinal cord injury while throwing a block against the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 17, 1991. "Just so somebody doesn't have to suffer ... We can give them that magic pill, that magic shot."
Until then, Utley takes great pride in helping others in a similar situation. His foundation donated more than $100,000 to help build a new, one-of-a-kind terrain park at Craig Hospital, a Denver facility that specializes in spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.
Utley rolled into the ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday wearing a blue button-down shirt, tie and wide receiver gloves on his hands (for better traction to propel his wheels). While he is paralyzed below the chest, he has regained most of the use of his hands and some voluntary movement of muscles in his lower legs and feet.
He watched as wheelchairs navigated the terrain, gliding over the sloped curves and speed bumps. The park includes stairs, cobblestone paths, doorways and other challenges that those in wheelchairs will encounter in every day life once they're out of Craig.
Utley, a former patient at Craig, didn't try out the park bearing his name -- not with cameras around.
"I don't want to be shown up by some young punk," he said with a grin. "It is something, though. It will make a difference."
Will Lachenauer of Reno, Nev., was one of the first to roll over the crushed rock and an obstacle that served to duplicate a doorway threshold.
Lachenauer arrived at Craig in June after breaking his back in a motocross accident, mistiming a jump on a course in Honey Lake, Calif., and spilling off the track.
"When you come here as a patient with a spinal cord injury, your world feels very closed off," said Lachenauer, who's scheduled to go home July 26. "Your first day in a chair, in a class, it opens up your world. As your skills progress, and you can go down stairs, your world opens up even more. That's why this is awesome."
Utley, a then 6-foot-5, 315-pound offensive lineman for the Lions, will be remembered for giving his trademark "thumbs up" salute to the crowd as he was taken off the field. It was his way of letting them know he'd be all right.
He's more than all right.
"Life's great. I get up every single day, put my feet on the ground and I make something happen today for Mike Utley that I didn't do yesterday," he said. "If you want success, it's earned. You earn what you get."
Lions running back great Barry Sanders taught him that. After one of his dazzling touchdown runs, Utley went up to the Hall of Famer and asked him why he never spiked the ball. Sanders told him he expected to score, why celebrate?
Utley has borrowed his way of thinking. He expects to make progress.
"I always tell the same story -- it's easy to run up that hill when a coach is yelling at you," said Utley, who will hold a benefit bike tour on Sept. 27 in East Wenatchee, Washington. "But are you going to run just as hard when the coach isn't there yelling at you? That's character."
Utley still enjoys football. He has season tickets to watch the Washington State Cougars and attends a couple of Lions contests every year.
His heart went out to Buffalo's Kevin Everett, who was initially paralyzed from the neck down after a violent collision on a kickoff return in last year's season opener.
Doctors didn't think Everett would walk again, but he regained many motor skills, including the ability to walk without assistance.
For that, Utley was truly grateful.
"Every spinal cord is different," Utley said. "We want to continue eliminating the devastation this injury causes."
Although the Lions have switched from the Pontiac Silverdome to Ford Field since Utley last played, he still has visions of walking off the field in front of the fans.
"I want to close that chapter of what I was," he said. "It's always been a goal."
But how does he reach that goal?
"By doing what I'm doing now -- weight lifting, biofeedback and nutrition," Utley said. "People have the ability to strive to be better than they are today and to make the difference tomorrow. That's how you (walk) off Ford Field."


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