Each year, Nov. 17 comes and goes on Mike Utley's calendar. He acknowledges it, obliges those who ask about it, then gets on with all that keeps him busy in his post-football life.
Of course, for the rest of us, the date and Utley are one. It's the day in 1991 when the former Lions guard fractured his sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae during a fourth-quarter play against the Los Angeles Rams. It's not the injury that sticks in our minds, but rather the exit; as Utley was carted off the field he gave Detroit fans a thumbs up to let them know he would be back. The 6-6, 290-pound lineman never played another down of pro football, but that thumb has lived on.
It would have been easy for Utley to become bitter about it all — about having to watch Detroit advance to the NFC championship game that year without him, and about having to spend the holidays in a hospital bed. He could have blamed the Rams' David Rocker for the field exchange that has left him a quadriplegic. But not once in all those years has Utley lost his positive outlook or asked others to feel sorry for him. And he hasn't dwelled on the date of his injury. That's just not who Mike Utley is.
"I wish I hadn't gotten hurt," he says, "but you can wish in a well and it's just throwing money away."
Instead, Utley focuses his energy on shaping his future. He works hard and plays hard.
"Let's put it this way: Life is good," says the 44-year-old, who then jokes, "I'm happy because the wife says so."
Not much has changed since his football playing days, he says. Now living in central Washington, he still eats like a football player, although instead of six meals a day he's down to four. He is religious about his weight-training regimen. He keeps up with the Lions and his alma mater, Washington State. And he still competes whenever and wherever he can. "I don't care if it's cribbage with the wife or backgammon with my buddies," he says.
The primary difference between Mike Utley pre- and post-paralysis is in where he invests his passion. To date, the Mike Utley Foundation has raised more than $2 million for spinal cord injury rehabilitation, education and research. That work keeps him on planes and at social functions and often brings him back to Detroit. In his heart, Utley has always been a Lion, and for the past two decades the team's fanbase has continued to celebrate his spirit every time he makes an appearance.
"When I played, I not only represented myself and my parents, but I represented the Detroit Lions. I take that seriously," he says. "Detroit has been good to me and I want fans to know that I will continue to work hard so that people can continue to have faith in what Mike Utley stood for when he played the game."
It's still Utley's goal to walk one day and to help others with his condition walk beside him. Nothing has him more excited than when talking about the medical breakthroughs he is seeing through the Foundation's work on test cells.
His Web site helps him to announce upcoming fundraising events and offer messages of encouragement … how to prepare, how to measure success, and how to gauge character.
Accountability is another quality Utley believes in. It's the key message he leaves kids with at speaking engagements. "You look at what's going on in society and people are not being accountable," he says. "Mike Utley was accountable back then and he's accountable today."
Utley also believes today's NFL players need to be accountable. While he supports NFL rules to discourage dangerous play, he believes that ultimately it's up to the players to take care of themselves. "If you choose to cross that white line and get into the game you must take personal responsibility," he says, "… you must prepare for the field of battle and for what comes after the game."
Utley had worked his way into the starting lineup after two injury-filled seasons in Detroit. He was ready for that 1991 season, and the last 19 years are proof he was ready for what came next.
Since its creation in early 1992, the Mike Utley Foundation has used "Thumbs Up!" as a way for the non-profit's mission to mirror Utley's spirit. "To have this legacy of thumbs up means I will be back and I will give everything 100 percent, no questions asked," he says.
When he was injured, thumbs up was about coming back. Now, says Utley, "I want people to know that I'm OK."
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).