At his home on the banks of the Columbia River just north of Wenatchee is one of Mike Utley’s achievements.
A Ford F-350 pickup.
Black with blue flames jutting from front to back, the truck gives off as imposing a presence as the 6-foot-6 Utley must have given opponents during his playing days as an offensive lineman with Washington State University and the Detroit Lions.
“Success comes not in time but in goals achieved,” he says. “I earned this truck.”
On November 17, 1991, Mike Utley was carried off a football field on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to a hospital.
In the ensuing 19 years, Utley has progressed from not having the ability to transfer himself, feed himself, or go to the bathroom by himself, to being able to drive this custom-built truck that he “can jump into.”
“This is the whole story in one nutshell,” he says. It is a story of fulfilling a promise made to himself in his NFL rookie season.
In the fifth game of the 1989 season, Utley broke his leg so badly that, despite several attempts to walk off the field under his own power, he had to be carried off.
“When a man walks across the white line to the field of battle, he walks off,” he says. “Right then and there, I promised myself this will never happen again, not to Mike Utley. I got carried off and I made a promise this will never happen again.”
Utley kept his promise until that November day.
The Lions were playing the Los Angeles Rams at the Pontiac Silverdome. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Lions’ quarterback Erik Kramer threw a pass over the outstretched arms of the Rams’ David Rocker.
Utley moved forward to block Rocker at his mid-thighs to take his legs out.
“He has to defend himself,” Utley recalls. “His hands have to come down…
“He caught me, and he pulled me down. I hit my head on the turf and broke my neck at C-5, -6, -7, and became instantly paralyzed.”
As he was attended to on the field, Utley’s thoughts came back to his promise.
“The hardest thing was I broke a promise to myself of not crossing that white line again. I got carried off a second time.”
While he was carried off, Utley used the little movement he had available in his right hand to give a thumbs up.
“I wanted the people to know that Mike Utley will be back.”
Coming back and walking off Ford Field, the Lions’ home stadium since 2002, has been one of Utley’s focuses since the injury.
The other is to help those who have suffered spinal cord injuries like him. That is why, in 1992, Utley started the Mike Utley Foundation.
“Probably Mike’s biggest message with the Foundation is it doesn’t matter if you have an injury or not, nothing’s changed unless you allow it to,” says Dani Utley, Mike’s wife. “You still need to eat the same, you still need to exercise. It doesn’t matter if you’re injured or not.”
“A cure is going to come, and God willing, the Mike Utley Foundation is going to be involved with it by what we are doing: raising money for research, education, and rehabilitation,” says Mike Utley.
Utley’s rehabilitation program involves weight lifting, conditioning, physical therapy, nutrition, and a process called biofeedback.
“Through biofeedback you find healthy cells through your spinal cord,” Mike explains, “like riding a bike. You teach your brain how to ride a bike.”
Since 1993, Utley has made annual visits to the Brucker Biofeedback Center in Miami as part of his rehabilitation. Since 1999, Utley has worked with Diana Diaz, a clinical manager at the center.
“Biofeedback is a technique where we are trying to find different cells in the brain where they are alive but not awake,” Diaz says. “We’re trying to wake them up and show them another pathway to make a motor connection between the brain and the muscles.”
The process involves placing electrodes over muscles with limited or no function. The electrodes are connected to a computer that is reading the brain signal transmission to the muscle. This appears in front of the patient on a screen.
“The patient will be able to see how much brain signal is transmitted to that muscle,” says Diaz. “The therapist has to find the best position for that muscle to make connection to the brain. If we keep the patient in one position and we see nothing is going on the screen then we want to be moving the patient in order to make the connection.”
Utley is tested neurologically each year to gauge how much progress he is making.
“Mike gets more function back every single year,” says Dani. “That’s one of the main reasons why we get him tested neurologically down in Miami, to see how much more he has regained.”
The progress is reflected in a manual-muscle test used to check the strength and range of motion in different parts of the body. Zero reflects no movement and five reflects a full range of motion.
For instance, with his hands, Diaz says that Utley measured at a two-plus/three-minus when he first arrived at the center in 1993. Today he scores a five.
Diaz, who describes Utley as “very determined,” has seen that determination translate into progress.
“We were trying to gain function and strength in the upper extremities around his shoulders, biceps, triceps, and hands,” Diaz recalls of Utley’s condition in 1999.
Now, Diaz says, Utley has “completely functional muscles” in the upper extremities. And the progress is not limited to his upper body.
“I remember that 11 years ago he didn’t have good trunk control,” said Diaz, who emphasizes that biofeedback is one component of the rehabilitation process. “We used a special table to transfer from his bed to wheelchair. These days he doesn’t use that anymore. He is very independent, which is telling me he has much more trunk control and stability.
“When I saw him 11 years ago, we used to stand him up with the use of braces,” Diaz adds. “These days he doesn’t use braces anymore. He’s able to stand up and bear weight on his legs only with someone bracing his knees, which is a huge accomplishment.”
For Utley’s future, Diaz says that he needs to gain more strength and brain signal connection to his lower back.
“If we get those muscles stronger, we want to be able to provide him better control of his waist area. With that he will be able to spread down more information to the quadriceps and hamstrings and be able to control those muscles.”
The ultimate goal, says Diaz, is to walk without the aid of support to his knees.
“You have to work. If it was easy, everybody would be here. It’s not easy; it’s hard,” Utley says. “There are two kinds of people with a spinal cord injury: those who wait for a cure and those who live for a cure. Mike Utley lives for a cure.”
And for the day when he can fulfill the promise he made.
“My goal is to walk off Ford Field,” Utley says. “To get off that 25-yard line and walk off that white line. I have to close this chapter in Mike Utley’s book and that is walking off Ford Field.
“Am I there yet to walk off Ford Field? No sir. But am I closer today than where I was 19 years ago? Yes, sir, I am.
“One day, somehow, some way.”