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Mike Utley article (1 Viewer)

Das Boot

I had to share this with FBG. Inspiration is an understatement in Mike Utley's case... Boot. :popcorn:


A Moving Inspiration

Utley Is Paralyzed, but a Fighting Spirit Lifts Him Up

By Dave Sheinin

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, January 29, 2006; Page E01


An impulse in his brain sends a signal down the bottlenecked freeway that is Mike Utley's spinal cord, triggering the wobbly synapses and neurons in his left hand, where a muscle then fires, sending the tip of his index finger down on the "Play" button of the remote control . . . and bam . There it is, flickering across the TV screen in Utley's living room.

Hi, pleased to meet you. Come on in, have a seat. Here, let's watch the play where I was paralyzed .

It's all on the TV now. The fleeting glimpse, at the edge of the screen, of big number 60 going helmet-first into the turf at the Pontiac Silverdome on Nov. 17, 1991. The Detroit Lions' touchdown celebration turning into grave worry at the sight of their right guard sprawled out, his right hand twitching oddly. The trainers, the paramedics, the stretcher, the polite applause as he's lifted up -- and, finally, as he's carried off, the right thumb in the air.

"Yeah, thumbs up," Utley says, as he watches the tape. "I just wanted people to know I'd be back."

You remember the play, don't you?

They certainly do in Detroit -- which is why, on a cool morning a week before Super Bowl XL, Utley will roll himself out to his Cadillac Escalade, with its rigged-up hand controls, swivel into the driver's seat and drive himself and his wife, Dani, across the Columbia River -- the banks of which lie perhaps half a football field from the window of his living room -- over the snowy Snoqualmie Pass and across the Cascade Mountains to Seattle, three hours away.

There, the Utleys will become two of the many jubilant football pilgrims from the Pacific Northwest who will board flights and flood into the Motor City this week, where the Seattle Seahawks will play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

Utley, a Seattle native, is going back to Detroit, just not the way he had always hoped. This is how he hoped it would happen:

It's halftime of Super Bowl XL. The Rolling Stones have finished playing. The stage smoke is dissipating from the air at Ford Field, which replaced the Silverdome as the Lions' home in 2002, and as the players begin to emerge from the tunnels for the start of the second half, the public-address announcer says, "Ladies and gentlemen, 14 1/2 years ago . . ." And there, on the biggest stage in the world, at the 50-yard line, Mike Utley rises, kicks away the chair and walks off the field -- the only act, in his mind, that would constitute closure.

"To do that at halftime of the Super Bowl, man, that would be the cat's meow," Utley says. A pause. He shifts his weight in the chair. "But I'm not ready yet."

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that every aspect of Utley's life these days -- just as it's always been -- is geared toward getting himself ready for that day. It's why he gets up at 4 a.m. every day. It's why the Mike Utley Foundation exists, raising millions of dollars over the years for research that might one day find a cure for paralysis.

It's why he uses bulky mountain-bike tires on his wheelchair instead of the standard ones with twice as much pressure, but that would require half as much effort to roll. It's why he works out religiously, his chiseled arms and shoulders attesting, and why he trains with a martial-arts expert. Hit me! Harder! HARDER!

"I miss playing football," Utley says. "I miss the violence. I miss hitting someone, and getting hit by someone."

"He doesn't really have a fear about being pushed to the edge," says Blair McHaney, owner of the Gold's Gym in nearby Wenatchee, where Utley works out.

It's why he takes his speedboat up to 90 mph out on the river, and his JetSki up to 70. They won't go any more than that. It's why he skis and scuba dives and parasails and skydives. He's an athlete, man. And sometimes, when he's falling through the sky or floating weightlessly beneath the waves or skimming atop the water like a banshee, he forgets momentarily that he is paralyzed from the chest down, a quadriplegic.

And it's why, in a garage off the side of his house, Utley, 40, rises up to his full 6 feet 6 inches and swivels himself into a contraption that looks like a cross between a Nordic ski machine and a medieval torture device. Here, standing up, with his weight supported by hand bars and braces, he does exercises that strengthen the muscles in his ankles and legs.

You might say it's a pointless exercise. Those leg muscles once squatted 800 pounds, and he has almost no use for those muscles now.

But one day when there's a cure, he's going to need them, and he's going to need them to work.

"I gotta be ready," he says. "I want to win. Don't just do what everyone else is doing. To win, you have to do what no one else is willing to do."

A Wild Boar

The psychiatrists try to tell you there are stages of recovery for patients like you. There is denial, despair, realization, blah, blah, blah. "I had one stage," Utley says. "It was called 'let's go.' "

There was a doctor who came into Utley's hospital room soon after the injury. Told him he had shattered his fifth, sixth and seventh vertebrae. Told him he would never walk again. If Utley could have, he'd have jumped out of the bed and hit the guy in the mouth. But he couldn't feel his legs and couldn't ball his hand into a fist. The signals were lost in that bottleneck, that construction zone that is his spinal cord. Instead, he said, "Don't ever tell me what I can't do," and ordered the man to leave.

"I've never #####ed a single time since the injury," Utley says now. "I used to ##### before the injury, about having to run up that hill [in practice]. It's not football's fault [for the injury]. It's just: [stuff] happens. Football may have put me in this wheelchair. But it's not about how I got here. It's about how I choose to live."

Regrets? Yeah, he has regrets. The Lions failed to make it to the Super Bowl at the end of that 1991 season, losing to the Washington Redskins in the NFC championship game. Ruined Utley's entire week.

"Joe Gibbs, that *******," he says with a laugh. "I oughta kick him in the shins. I could've had a [super Bowl] ring."

That year, when the Super Bowl came around, Utley was at Craig Hospital in Denver, which specializes in spinal cord injuries. What does a red-blooded American football fan require when watching the Super Bowl? Beer, of course. There was none in the hospital. But there was a 7-Eleven four blocks away.

Out the door went Utley, down the street in his wheelchair he went. Into the 7-Eleven. "My man," he said to the cashier, "I need a 40-ouncer, bad."

Back to the hospital. In front of the big-screen TV, he struggled to open his bottle. But he couldn't exactly ask for help, could he? Took him an hour and a half to get it open, with hands that struggled to do what his brain was trying to tell them. But he did it, and he poured it into a glass.

"Best beer I ever tasted," he says now, "but it was a little warm by then."

"At Craig, we encourage our patients to be independent," says Sharon Blackburn, a physical therapist at the hospital. "Mike certainly grasped that concept."

Blackburn remembers another time when a giant crate arrived at the hospital via UPS, addressed to Utley. "We were out in the hallway opening it," Blackburn says. "We got it open and . . . ohmygosh. His teammates had mailed him the head of a wild boar. Apparently, he'd shot it a few months before."

At Craig, Utley learned how to take care of himself. How to use the toilet. How to feed himself. Eventually, he moved into his own place, attended to by nurses twice a day, four hours at a time. His mom, Irene, moved back home to Seattle after he told her: "C'mon, Mom. You're cramping a dude's style!"

His next stop was the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital, where Bernard Brucker introduced him to the concept of biofeedback, whereby electrodes and computers are used to pinpoint which nerve cells throughout the body are still working, and the brain is retrained to make connections with those cells -- "learning at the cellular level," as Brucker calls it.

Dead cells will not regenerate, but with Utley, it became clear he had more undamaged cells than previously believed.

Spinal cord patients "are told that if they don't bounce back right away, they should just get used to it, because they never will," Brucker said. "But Mike made a tremendous amount of recovery that was not expected. . . . [His] muscles that were totally paralyzed are now stronger than those of non-injured people. He's even getting some signal to his lower extremities. In the beginning there was absolutely zero."

Five years after the injury, Utley began to gain some feeling in his legs. And in 1999, eight years after the injury, Utley held a news conference, and in a room packed with television cameras, he pushed himself out his chair, and with the help of a few people who steadied him -- including Dani Andersen, who was introduced as Utley's girlfriend -- he took seven slow, straining, lurching steps.

It may not have looked like much, but by God, no one in the room had ever seen that happen before.

"I don't know anybody in my vast experience who has rebuilt his muscles to the extent Mike has, or who has become as functional at what he wants to do," Brucker said. "He continued to do exercises when people were telling him there was no point."

Standing in front of the microphones, Utley said he had one goal: To go back to Detroit, back to the 50-yard line of the Silverdome, and walk off that field on his own.

Positive Vibrations

For nearly 14 years, Utley said, he had not one moment of despair or self-pity at his plight.

And then last year, he was invited to attend ceremonies at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where his former Lions teammate, Barry Sanders, was among the inductees. Utley, a third-round pick from Washington State, had been drafted in 1989, two rounds after Sanders. He had opened holes for Sanders, had a small part in making this day possible for the great running back.

That afternoon, he was sitting next to Dani, holding a glass of wine, all dressed up.

"I was looking up there [at the stage]. I remember Barry had on his gold coat," Utley said. "And I thought: '####### it. Because of this chair, I'll never be up there. That'll never be me."

He shrugs his shoulder, imitates chugging the glass of wine, then motioning to an imaginary waiter: Bring me another.

"That was it. That's the most despair I'll allow," he says. "I have to work through the adversity. But you know what? So do other people."

If a thought is not a positive one, Utley doesn't want to think it. If a voice is not a positive one, he doesn't want to hear it. If something has no value toward achieving his ultimate goal, he won't waste his time with it.

"My first impressions of him," says McHaney of Gold's Gym, "were, number one, 'I'm game.' Number two, 'I'll work my butt off.' Number three, 'I'll never stop.' And number four, 'I refuse to be bitter.' . . . I've heard Mike say he wants to go back to Detroit and walk off that field. Well, I can tell you, he's going to achieve that goal or he's going to die trying."

'Meant for Each Other'

From the huge windows off the Utleys' living room, nature is showing off. Mike likes to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Dani, a paramedic, once watched a bald eagle swoop out of one of their weeping willow trees, snatch a duck out of the water, pluck its feathers off one by one and devour it. "The other morning, there was a moose standing out in the yard," she says. "He walked around a little bit and then swam across the river. I saw the whole thing."

They were introduced by McHaney, whom they both used as a personal trainer, not long after Mike moved here in 1998.

"He was so loud and obnoxious!" Dani says.

But she accepted his invitation to go on a date, and five months later she moved in with him.

"Sinner," he sneers, and they burst into laughter. He married her in a Hawaiian luau-themed wedding on an island in Puget Sound, off Seattle nearly five years ago. On the day of the wedding, he gave her a gift: a small globe, with a note saying, "You mean the world to me."

"We just knew we were meant for each other," she says.

On their wedding video, he has the same mullet haircut he had when he played, and that he still wears now.

"Oh," he says confidently, "it's going to come back."

Utley has a generous income from an out-of-court settlement with the Lions that was reached not long after the injury. The NFL and the team, he said, did right by him. "I'm grateful for that," he says. "But I paid for it."

Ever since Mike fired the entire staff of the foundation -- "because they just weren't getting it done," he says -- the operation has been run entirely by three volunteers: the Utleys and a secretary who works three other jobs. Dani does the bulk of the work, organizing Mike's speaking engagements, answering the 50 or so e-mails Mike gets on an average day and -- this week -- putting together a media packet about the foundation that will be distributed at his news conference in Detroit on Thursday.

"I want every dollar we bring in to go to the researchers," Utley says. "I want to get out of this chair."

Mike's goals have become Dani's. "When that day occurs, and Mike walks off that field, it will all pay off in the end," she says. "It will be a proud, emotional moment."

Kids? Tough question. The Utleys look at each other awkwardly. Don't you know how difficult a question that is for people like them -- so busy, so young and full of life?

"We'd have to reprioritize our lives," he says.

"Someone would have to stay home," she says. "And where would we put them?"

As for that other issue, don't worry for a moment about that.

"I'm capable of having kids," he says. "Usually, after that kind of injury, your sperm count and mobility go way down. But I got checked out a couple of years ago . . . honey, what did they say?"

"Oh, Mike," Dani says, rolling her eyes, "don't brag."

He grins devilishly. "They said it was like a 19-year-old college kid's."

Mike Utley wheels himself to the door to let a visitor out. Outside, the sun is hidden by clouds and mist. On the river, where, in the summer, Mike would be flying around on whatever fast, screaming machine he feels like operating that particular day, there are only a few ducks, watching warily for danger from the sky.

On the hills and slopes, tall evergreens dot the brown landscape. Most summers, there are wildfires in these parts, the dry brush and vegetation burning away so that new life can grow in its place -- nature's own awesome, terrible healing process.

The biologists call it regeneration.

The psychiatrists try to tell you there are stages of recovery for patients like you. There is denial, despair, realization, blah, blah, blah. "I had one stage," Utley says. "It was called 'let's go.' " :yes:


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