PHOENIX -- Seven years and three months after his football career, and his life, were shattered by a paralyzing spine injury, Mike Utley plans to take a few steps in public today.
They will be halting, small steps to be sure, but they will also be giant strides for this irrepressible man who has come to epitomize determination and courage in the face of grim odds.
On that November afternoon in 1991, after one of the violent collisions so common in the NFL, Utley lay motionless on the turf before a silent crowd at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.
The 6-foot-6, 315-pound offensive lineman for the Detroit Lions was carried off the field. His sixth and seventh vertebrae were crushed. He was paralyzed, a quadriplegic.
Yet Utley refused to give up. He has skydived and scuba dived, gone skiing and taken kayak lessons. He drives a specially equipped van. Most significant, he started a foundation aimed at finding a cure for spinal cord injuries, and helping those who have been stricken, mostly teen-agers or young adults.
"Thumbs up" became his trademark.
Utley has vowed to someday walk off the field from that precise spot where he was injured. He isn't ready for that yet. But those first public steps will show how far he has come.
He's already taken as many as five or six steps in private. Before a select group of reporters and photographers, with two close friends -- retired center Bill Lewis and Detroit Lions linebacker Rob Frederickson -- at his side, he will take them for everyone to see.
"He's one of the strongest people internally that I've ever been associated with," said George Dempsey, president of the Phoenix-based Mike Utley Foundation. "He has incredible charisma, especially with teen-agers and young adults. And he has a million-dollar smile."
Dempsey met Utley nearly seven years ago.
"I told him `Mike, you are going to do more from your wheelchair to help the children of this country than you could ever have done playing professional football,"' Dempsey said. "And that's exactly what he's done. He's an incredible inspiration."
When doctors told him he would never walk again, Utley ordered them out of the room and said never tell him what he couldn't do.
Just past his 33rd birthday, after years of grueling, mind-numbing, repetitive physical therapy, Utley is careful not to call what he will do today "walking."
"Just recently, I have accomplished what some doctors told me was impossible," he said in a statement released by his publicist last week. "I stood up and took a few steps. This injury does change you if you let it. I won't let it."
The injury has transformed a largely undisciplined, fun-loving athlete from Washington State University into a supremely disciplined, yet no less fun-loving, quadriplegic who refused to surrender.
"He works harder than any person I've ever met," Dempsey said. "He is at gym and therapy six days a week. He is relentless. He has a work ethic that is second to none."
Utley's injury was known as "incomplete" in medical terms, which means he had some sensations and slight functions in his legs.
He went to the University of Miami medical school for biofeedback treatment, looking to find the connection between his brain and those few nerves that survived.
He has spent the last eight to 10 months strengthening his legs so they could support his still sizable upper body.
"He had to get his hip flexors moving in order to move his legs," Dempsey said.
Utley, who continued to receive his football salary after his injury, plans to spend his winters in Phoenix and his summers near Seattle, where he grew up and his family still lives.
All the while, he will keep aiming toward that goal, so unthinkable a few years ago, of getting up from the turf in the Silverdome and walking off the field. After today, it will seem more than a quadriplegic's pipe dream.
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