Jim Walden first saw Mike Utley not on a football field but on a basketball court.
Walden, the WSU Head Football Coach, was putting together his 1985 recruiting class, and his assistant coach Gary Gagnon asked him to take a look at a recruit who was playing for the Kennedy High School basketball team in Seattle.
“He was doing everything 100 miles an hour, full-bore, running up and down the court,” Walden recalls. “I distinctly remember thinking he is not going to lead the league in scoring, but he will lead the league in banging, knocking, and grabbing guys. I really like the way he ran.”
Gagnon, who had viewed film on Utley on the gridiron, told Walden that he is the same way on the football field.
“I said, ‘Gary, let’s offer this kid a scholarship,’” Walden remembered. “He was as raw as he can be but, boy, was he active. He looked like a guy who liked to play the game and liked to compete. We found that all to be true.”
Utley narrowed his choices down to two schools, WSU and Oregon, liking the fact that neither institution was in a big city. He decided to stay in-state and chose WSU.
Over two decades later, Utley knows he made the right decision, and it extends beyond football.
Riding his motorcycle to the wheat fields of the Palouse is a fond memory for Utley of his time in Pullman.
“I was able to get to the wheat fields by myself and just breathe,” says Utley. “I cherish the moment to go out in the Palouse during the spring, summer, and early fall. I used that moment to become who I am today. It created who Mike Utley chose to be, it’s what I wanted.
“It was a perfect choice for Mike Utley.”
Current WSU offensive line coach Steve Morton served in the same capacity from 1977-86 and coached Utley during his first three seasons at WSU.
“One of the best things about the kid, when you first got to know him, was that he has a bigger than life personality,” he said. “He lived life every day; he lives life every day, to its fullest.”
Walden did not recall one time when he had to reprimand Utley on the football field, but he does remember one occasion when he had to deliver a message to him.
“I did have to call him one time that it was important that he go to school if we wanted to compete,” says Walden, the Cougar Football Coach from 1978-86. “He was like a lot a college kids in their freshman and sophomore years so caught up in lifting weights and working out.
“It never dawned on him until I put it in a way he hadn’t heard it: if he didn’t start going to school, then the school was going to reject him, and then he wasn’t going to be able to fulfill his dreams of playing college football.”
Utley only had to be given the message once.
“After my first school year (1985), he called me in his office and threw my transcript in front of me and said, ‘son I’m tired of dealing with you.’
“I knew the game of football would be taken away from Mike Utley if I did not buckle down and give 100 percent to schooling. He made the point clear: get it together or get out of here. I saw the light from that point forward.”
With his academics prioritized, Utley continued his football pursuits and became the most decorated football player in school history with selections to six All-America teams and MVP of the 1988 Aloha Bowl playing for Coach Dennis Erickson.
One of Utley’s teammates from the 1988 Aloha Bowl Championship team was current WSU Football Head Coach Paul Wulff.
“On the football field he was truly tough,” said Wulff, who played center for the Cougars from 1986-89 and Utley’s roommate the night before every game. “He was very much a free spirit, did what he wanted to do, and it didn’t really matter what anyone else thought.
“I can’t tell you how he saved me from looking really bad on the offensive line.”
But . . .
“He also broke some toenails,” said Wulff, who, at center, played next to Utley, who was a guard. “At practice, his spikes would dig right on my big toe. I just remember hurting.”
After WSU, Utley was a third round pick of the Detroit Lions in the 1989 NFL Draft. In 1991, Walden was coaching Iowa State, but he was still following his former Cougar players and recalled what he was his thinking when Utley was injured.
“I always remember when he gave the thumbs up and really hope that was a positive sign there was no paralysis,” Walden said. “When the report came in, it was the worst possible situation. It broke my heart.”
Morton joined Walden at Iowa State and remembers vividly when he learned of Utley’s injury.
“I’ll never forget it. I can remember like it was yesterday,” he says. “I was sitting in my office, and I got a call from (WSU athletic trainer Mark Smaha). It was just one of those things I know exactly who was there, what was going on. It was just one of those moments.”
Today, Utley serves as an inspiration to his former teammates and coaches.
“You have those definitive moments in life when tragedy hits us all,” Morton says. “It’s not what happens but how you handle it. Some of us can’t get out of it, and some of us soar. Mike has soared.”
“What an affect he’s had on so many people,” Wulff said. “He’s impacted way more people going through what he’s gone through than he would have ever done just being a football player.”
“I admire him more today for what’s he’s done since then than I ever would of as a healthy football player,” Walden said. “Mike is a competitor, he was a full-bore competitor. Obstacles to him were to attack as hard as he could. This became a major, major obstacle and yet his mental framework to attack this, to get better, and to be able to get far beyond what anyone ever expected does not surprise me in the least.”