No Paper Lion

updated 01/27/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/27/1992 01:00AM

MIKE UTLEY IS DAMNED IF HE'S GOING to allow himself to be pitied. Sure, the former offensive lineman for the Detroit Lions is in a wheelchair. And sure, doctors say he'll probably never walk again. But is he bitter? Hardly. "There're times when I get pissed," he says, "when my damn chair won't go straight or I can't get a letter open. But my view of the world hasn't changed. I'm just a little shorter."

Shorter maybe, but not short on toughness. In fact Utley, 26—who will be watching Sunday's Super Bowl XXVI from Craig Hospital in suburban Denver, one of the nation's leading rehabilitation centers—has become this football season's most indelible symbol of courage. Last Nov. 17, during a game with the Los Angeles Rams, Utley's career came crashing to an end on the artificial turf of the Pontiac Silverdome. Ram tackle David Rocker went up to deflect a pass and landed hard on Utley—whose head slammed to the ground. As doctors determined later, the sixth vertebra of his spinal column had been damaged, paralyzing him from the chest down. As the 6'6", 290-lb. guard was carried from the field on a stretcher, he raised his hand and gave his teammates a defiant thumbs-up.

The gesture galvanized the Lions, who went on to beat the Rams, 21-10. For the rest of the season, the team wore T-shirts under their jerseys stenciled with the thumbs-up sign and Utley's name and number. Not coincidentally, they won all six of their remaining games. It took the Washington Redskins—favorites in this week's Super Bowl—to finally knock Detroit out of the play-offs.

Since the injury, Utley has been working hard at his own turnaround. After breakfast each day, he goes to "mat class," which he describes as "physical therapy where they arrange your legs." Next comes occupational therapy. "Basically, it's all hand things—take things apart, put things together. It's a slow process." After lunch come wheelchair classes and sessions in a special device that will help him to stand. Utley says he is "taking it one day at a time."

He spends his spare moments with his girlfriend of a year, Lisa, 20, who visits each day and helps Mike keep up with the thousands of cards, letters and gifts from fans. "They crack me up," says Mike. A memorable letter came from a first grader who wrote, "Hi, Mr. Utley. I hope you get better soon. I hate football."

Utley himself has no anger toward football, though he acknowledges his injury forcibly reminded him of the game's inescapable violence. "Nobody wants to see anybody else get hurt," he says. "That's the bottom line. It makes the reality come too close. Football is a controlled free-for-all."

When his therapy ends, Utley plans to return to college. Would he play football again if he could? "Yeah, I'd do it," he says. "I still love football. Always will. The only difference is now I'll do it as an armchair quarterback. I'm not going to look back. I haven't asked God, 'Why me?' and I never will. Someday I'll know why."

BILL PLUMMER
VICKIE BANE in Denver

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