Originally created 02/16/99

Paralyzed ex-football player takes a few exhilarating steps



PHOENIX -- For the first time since he lay paralyzed on the Pontiac Silverdome turf seven years ago, Mike Utley stood in public Monday and took a few wobbly steps.

"By standing up, you feel who you are," he said. "I was 315 pounds and 6-foot-6. I was proud to be as big as I was. I was proud to be as tall as I am. I want it back."

Towering over everyone as he did so long ago, wearing a Detroit Lions T-shirt, the former offensive lineman made it a few feet down a wooden walkway, painfully swinging one leg ahead, then the other.

He wore lower leg braces to keep his ankles from rolling. A friend steadied him on each side. He grimaced as he took each excruciating step, his girlfriend Dani Andersen helping him by making sure his spindly lower legs stayed straight.

A couple of times, his legs gave way, and the two buddies on each side, retired NFL center Bill Lewis and Lions linebacker Rob Frederickson, had to catch him.

But he made it 10 feet or so.

"Whew! I'd rather go through double days than that," he said afterward. "No, it's exhilarating. Seven years is a long time to be sitting in this chair."

His sense of humor, a major ally throughout his struggle, was on display, too.

As Utley stood poised for this high drama, a cell phone rang.

"Dominos," he said, imitating the guy who answers at the pizza place.

Everyone laughed.

Then it was back to business, as it has been every tough day since that horrifying moment on Nov. 17, 1991, in the Lions' home game against the Rams.

He knew immediately the injury was serious. Two of his vertebrae had been crushed. As he was carried off the field, he gave the crowd a "thumbs up" gesture.

It's become his trademark, and Utley has come to symbolize grit, determination and optimism in the face of grim odds. He vows to someday walk off the field from the spot he was injured. He talked Monday of someday walking his mom three blocks from her home to church.

He's a long way from that, but those steps in front of a crowd of reporters and photographers in a Phoenix hotel conference room were an emotional triumph nonetheless.

"It was awesome to see him up there," Lewis said. "Yesterday when we rehearsed, I was practically in tears. It's nothing short of miraculous."

Utley, 33, is paralyzed from the chest and elbows down. His upper arms still are the bulging biceps of a football lineman. But he has only partial control of his hands and lower arms. About two years ago, he began to feel some sensations in his legs. He can feel his toes, describing it as the way you'd feel on an extremely cold day.

He began working with biofeedback, trying to identify the connection between his brain and those few alive nerves in his legs. He kept up daily, grueling physical therapy.

"Rehabilitation is a lifestyle," he said. "It's not something you just do."

A major reason for his public display, and the pressure that came with it, on Monday was his desire to raise more money for his Mike Utley Foundation, dedicated research aimed at finding a cure for spinal cord injuries.

Utley was quick to point out that no two spinal cord injuries are the same.

"The one thing you can control is your mind," he said. "I'm not saying everyone will get as far as I've gotten. But they can do something today they didn't do yesterday. Maybe they can go outside. Maybe they can wheel themselves around the block, and maybe tomorrow they can do two blocks."

Utley credits his positive attitude for everything he has accomplished, whether it be snow skiing, scuba diving, driving his specially equipped van or taking those few steps.

"It's a good start," he said of his effort Monday. "Is it the finish line? Not even close? Will I continue on? Will I walk again? You betcha. ... I've taken a few more steps before, but I've never gone this far. I want to walk off that Silverdome, and one day I will. It might not be tomorrow, but someday I will. I guarantee it."

Doctors, who once told him he'd never walk again, now look on Utley as a great asset.

"It gives their new patients hope," Utley said. "If you take hope away, if you take dreams away, you lose them forever. But it goes back to the person. If you're a champion before you got hurt, you're a champion now. But you have to work at it. You have to have goals. I will never be number two, not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Why? Because I believe in myself."

He talked of going to hospitals to visit children stricken by paralyzing injuries, seeing their family's in pain and solidifying his determination to find a cure.

"I don't want to see moms and dads cry anymore," he said.

Before he rose for that moment on his feet, he explained why he had decided to take these steps publicly. He wanted to show doctors, insurance companies and the health industry in general that rehabilitation is a lifelong process, something a seriously injured person needs to do until he dies.

And there was a more personal reason.

"I want to do it for my family and the people who have given me support from the first day when I came off that field and gave that thumbs up," he said, "everyone in the Detroit organization, the friends I've made since I've been hurt. I will show them that I have never quit. I will never quit until I am completely free of this spinal cord injury."