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Mike Utley Interview: "I Have No Regrets."

Mike Utley played guard for the Detroit Lions from 1989-91 before getting paralyzed on November 17, 1991 against the Los Angeles Rams. Since then, he has challenged the confines of his disability by taking part in physically challenging activities such as skydiving, skiing, kayaking, and scuba diving. He has started the Mike Utley foundation to help find a cure for spinal cord injuries. You can help by visiting the foundation’s site at Here, he recounts his career and his life in this interview.

Mitchell Blatt, Fantasy Alliance: “Do you still pay attention to the NFL?”
Mike Utley: “I still watch the games. Do I know the ins and outs of it? No, I don’t track the players as much; I just watch the game for the game now.”

MB: ”What about the Lions? Steve Mariuci was fired. Joey Harringtons looking pretty bad. Do you have any comments on what you think about the Lions?”
MU: “As a former Lion and a big, big fan, I just want them to do well. I thought it was going to be coach, and I thought it was going to be Harringon. As a football fan, I just want them to do well, however they seem to get the job done, I just want that to happen. When it comes to the administration, that’s way above my head, that’s way over me.”

MB: “Athletes say they don’t pay attention to the media. Is that true?”
MU: “Oh, you don’t want anything bad written about you for god sakes, but a lot of these punks that do write never really played the game. They’re always the armchair quarterbacks. You know, with hindsight and 20/20 vision”

MB: “What is a typical day like for you?”
MU: “I get up at 4 am between 4 and 4:15 every day. I get one meal with my creatine every single day at that hour. I feed my cats. Then, I get up and do some stretching. Then, I shower up, clean up, and get ready for my day. From that point, I have another small meal. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, by 7:45, I leave for the gym. I do my training, starting at about 8:15, 8:30. I work out for about two hours from there. Then, I do some errands in town. We live about 35, 40 minutes away from town. From there, we make some phone calls for the foundation and do foundation business. My wife gets on the computer, and I usually do the phone calls or those kind of things. Then, we start prepping for diner, and if there’s an evening event, we go do that. Also, I forgot, on Mondays and Wednesdays, there’s martial arts training at one o’clock that I do. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I get up at four. I do the food. I do my standing frame and the cardio here. If there’s business with the foundation or something personal for me, I get that done. Then at two, there’s martial arts training for another hour, hour and a half, sometimes up to two hours. We get back, and we do errands around town. We do some foundation work the eat dinner. I go to bed early: around nine. Then, that’s it, my days done with.”

MB: “What does the training consist of?”
MU: “Weight training starts out where I do chests, shoulders, and tris. Then, I do back and thighs. Then, I do everything from body weights to floor exercises. I go from a stable position in my wheel chair to an unstable position on a beach ball. I do a lot of high reps.
When it comes to martial arts training, everything from the Filipeno sticks to the wooden dummy and hand-to-hand combat. These are some of the things that I do. If you get a chance, check out the show Fearless on OLN.”

MB: “If you didn’t play football, what would you have done?”
MU: “I believe it would have been either some kind of construction outdoors or some other kind of outdoor job like logging or something. It most definitely would have been outdoors and physical. I enjoy being outside and getting work done.”

MB: “What was it like growing up in Seattle?”
MU: “I had two older brothers, a younger sister, and mom and dad. It was a great thing. Mom and dad both worked. Dad worked during the day for Boeing, and mom worked in the evening as a registered nurse. They gave us the opportunity where they both worked, and they allowed us to go to a private Catholic school. It gave us an opportunity to see what the word sacrifice means. My mom and dad giving to their kids.”

MB: “You got a scholarship to Washington State. What was it like to get that scholarship? What was your reaction?”
MU: “It was great! My reaction to the scholarship was excitement, and the reason why I was excited was I had an opportunity to play against the best of the Pac-10. And Washington State was a school that I enjoyed. It was a smaller school, but you had the opportunity to play against any Pac-10 school in that division. For me to be able to go against some of the guys I did and the lifelong friends that were made, it was a great choice.”

MB: “What were some other schools you were looking into?”
MU: “The other school that I really, truly, gave a regard to going to was the University of Oregon, and it came down to where I just decided to stay in state. It was a great choice. The University of Oregon is a good school, but I just decided to stay in state.”

MB: “You were the second player in Washington State history to be a two-time All-American. What is the significance of that?”
MU: “The biggest thing about being a consensus All-American is that being an All-American comes from your team. All I looked at was that my team gave me the best position to be there and give 100% of myself. That was the best part about it. Then, the awards started coming, but for an individual to come and say, this guy was a decorated All-American, and the best player to come out of Wash U. … I enjoyed the game. I loved the guys I played next to, and I sure enjoyed the coach [Jim Walden for the first three years, then Dennis Erickson for the next two] who coached me.”

MB: “In 1987, you played in Tokyo in the Coca-Cola Bowl. What was Japan like?”
MU: “There was a bunch of little people over there. It was an eye-opening experience to be able to travel overseas and go play American football in front of all the Japanese folks. It really was a great opportunity and basically a way to say, ‘Wow!’ Thank god I was born in America and live here. This is a great place to be. [In Japan,] it was too crowded. Stores weren’t wide enough. Hallways weren’t wide enough. I love being here in America.”

MB: “How long did you spend in Japan?”
MU: “Ten or eleven days.”

MB: “Do you think Pro Football and college should continue to play games overseas and try to develop a global interest?”
MU: “Yes, I do. I do if the countries want us there. If they don’t want us to, don’t give them the time of day. If the countries want us to come out there, and the exhibit sportsmanship, those kinds of things, I think it’s a great thing. I don’t want to associate us with some of those antics that the soccer countries do. I don’t think that’s first class, but if they can go out there and enjoy the game for the game, then I think it’s a great opportunity for America to bring football worldwide.”

MB: “At what point in your college career did you realize that playing in the NFL was going to become a reality?”
MU: “I think the moment it happened was when my senior year was complete and over with. I had given 100% of myself during that time, during the five years at Washington State. And I looked forward, by competing with some of the other stars, to continue on with my career. At that point, there was an opportunity to go to the combine where I knew that I could compete with those guys at the next level.”

MB: “What was the combine like?”
MU: “The combine was where you had the top 300 athletes go to Indianapolis. It was eye opening. It was an experience that I will never forget. They poke you, prod you, pull you, and everything else. Now, I understand the whole picture. They’re buying the team’s future. They had to know everything about you. And for me to sit there and let these doctors pull your arms, twist your arms, test you, photograph you, and all that kind of stuff, it was an eye opening experience, but it was one I’m glad I went through. It allowed me to be in the NFL. It was great.”

MB: “After the combine, did you have any idea what round you would be drafted in?”
MU: “I had no idea. No idea. I would hope that I was one of the top few, and I was. I became third round, third pick, [sixth guard taken]. It was great.”

MB: “Was there any specific team you were hoping to go to?”
MU: “Growing up as a kid, I wanted the Seahawks to pick me up, but they picked a buddy of mine up instead [Center Joe Tofflemire of Arizona in round 2], so they went off my favorites list real quick. But, the Lions picked me, and that was a great opportunity. Remember, I tell people, getting into the NFL is a pure sprint. But, once you get there, it is a marathon. How long can you last, and how long can you perform at the highest level?”

(Seattle also picked Andy Heck, a guard from Notre Dame, in round one, so they weren’t in need of a guard later in the draft.)
MB: “The Lions picked Barry Sanders in round one of that draft [third pick right behind the great Packers tackle Tony Mandarich]. Were you pretty happy to be picked by a team with such a good running back?”
MU: “Acctually, I didn’t know who Barry Sanders was until I got there. Then, the first time I watched him practice and watched him move and those kinds of things, I said, ‘Man, we are going to be good!’ You know what, we were good.”

MB: “Was it hard blocking for him, with him switching directions so much?”
MU: “Nope. The biggest thing, as an offensive linemen, that the other five guys will tell you is to stay out of his way. The best part about it was that Barry was an experienced runner. He knew how to set the guys up to allow you to perform your job at the highest level. That’s what he did, and it came down to it where you could sit there and make a block and have it executed perfectly because of what Barry has done in the backfield, which you don’t even know until you watch the film.” …

…MB: “What was it like to finally realize your dream of playing in the NFL?”
MU: “I think it all set in when I showed up to play the Seattle Seahawks my second year. I had my family, my friends, and there were signs all throughout the stadium. The place was packed. Like one third of my friends and family were coming to watch me in Seattle. That was fantastic. A dream come true as a little kid. It was phenomenal… …That was a memory that will last you a lifetime.”

MB: “That rookie year, at what point did you realize you were going to start as a rookie?”
MU: “That’s a great question. When I knew I was going to start was when the offensive line coach said, ‘Get ready, you’re going in.’ During training camp, they don’t give you any information. But, on every offensive play I practiced, I practiced right guard from the very beginning. You still don’t know if you’re going to make the team. They just want to work you out, which I though, but some of the vets said, ‘Gosh, man, you’re doing good. Keep it up.’ I kept after it and kept hammering it. Why? Because I wanted to be there. I wanted to be the best. When I knew for sure that I was going to start was when the offensive line coach told me. The deal was: I start at right tackle the first game of my NFL career, which I had never played before, but our starting right tackle was hurt.”

MB: “What’s the difference between guard and tackle?”
MU: “Generally, the guys on the inside [center and guards] go against the defensive linemen that are 300 pound plus, their a lot stronger, they’re quicker. The guys on the outside are typically lighter. The guys they go against are smaller and faster—not neccesarilly quicker, but faster. Generally as a tackle, your technique is more upright, where your guard and center are more crawling and dive blocking.”

MB: “What was the big difference between the college and pro game?”
MU: “The difference between high school and college is pure size. How big can you get between high school and college? The difference between college and the pros is pure speed, not only physically how fast things happen, but mentally how fast they happen. In the pros, they do not wait for you. They expect you to be ready and prepared. There is no hand holding in the pro level where there is in college. They help you along. They help develop you and so on. There is no time like that in the pros. You’re expected to perform at the pro level regardless of what your status is.”

MB: “What was hazing like your rookie season?”
MU: “It’s a good thing! It makes you a part of the team. There was no brutalizing, for Pete’s sakes, but there was the fire hose and fire extinguishers in your bedroom in training camp. There was the old singing at lunch and dinnertime. During the week of training camp or during the season, you had to bring your veterans two Egg-McMuffins, a Danish, two gallons of milk, and two gallons of orange juice every Thursday. Then, a few times a year, I had to buy 14 dozen donuts, two gallons of milk, and two gallons of orange juice for the team.”

MB: “What kind of experience gain do you get from year one to year two in the NFL?”
MU: “Basically, what is rookie does, is his feet will move ten times to do this one drill. A vet, for example, will do it in three moves. So, the excitement and the adrenaline a rookie has is out of control. The adrenaline a vet has at the same time, after being there for at least a year, is more efficient on what he does and how he moves. … As a rookie, you’re more of a shotgun and then as a vet, you become a target shooter.”

MB: “Did the fact that you only played five games in your rookie season impact your development and transition into year two?”
MU: “It did. Or course, it did. I only had five games of experience on me compared to the eighteen or the sixteen games we played, but me being around the vets, watching film, lifting weights, even though I couldn’t perform, I got better physically and metally. So I was a step behind the other guys. There weren’t any other rookies at my position from the previous year, but I did step up and start again my second year, until breaking my ribs.”

MB: “You got injured a lot before being paralyzed. Did the injuries ever get into your head and maybe make you play differently that you would have?”
MU: “Nope. I have never changed one iota from one injury to the next. What I did on the field was right. I don’t care what it was: both my legs, my ribs, separated my shoulder or my hip. It did not matter. I did what I did, because I thought it was right at that point in time. There was always a reason why I did things. I look back, and it was right at that time. Now, after you look back, you can go, ‘I could have done this better and this better and that better.’ I did what was right at the time, and I will never second-guess myself. As far as the injuries go, I just wish I had never gotten hurt, but there was nothing I could have done about it, except doing what I did, and that is working hard through my adversity.”

MB: “You are asked to hit people and do stuff that comes unnaturally to most people. How do you get prepared for that?”
MU: “Well, actually, it starts in pee-wee football. Once you step across that line, it’s a pure battle. The guy in front of you wants to beat the hell out of you, and your job is to turn it on and turn it off. That’s one thing I’ve always been able to do. When I walk onto that field, I become an animal, but off the field, you must be a gentleman… …It doesn’t matter who you are. As long as you put that jersey on, you were as important to me as anyone else on that team. I have always been one of those guys who will defend what I think is right, and I always defended those guys who had the same badge of honor on my team as I did.“

MB: “Looking at the 1991 season, you went 12-4 and had the first playoff win in franchise history since 1957. Could you sense that it was going to be a special season going in?”
MU: “Yes. When it started was in that 1990 offseason. The majority of us stayed in Detroit, and we trained vigorously. We attacked every single day like there was no tomorrow. Then, when training camp came up, everybody was in shape. Everybody was ready to go, and we knew that. What it came down to was when we executed things on the field, the coaches had a phenomenal gameplan. And, we had played together for three years now. It worked out. The ball players had gotten the system down, and we just executed. It really turned out well, for 1991. Not what we wanted, but we came pretty dang close.”
(They lost to the Washington Redskins 41-10 in the NFC championship.)

MB: “What kind of a coach was Wayne Fontes?”
MU: “He was considered a player’s coach. He took the media on by himself. He defended us through thick and thin, right and wrong. He came in and made sure that if we all made mistakes or if you made a mistake as an individual on the field or off the field, he made sure that it won’t happen again. He was a coach that would get in your coach and lay the law down. I think that’s pretty cool! I have always liked coaches like that. I have always respected coaches like that, and that’s the way I think it should be. They will defend you, but behind closed doors, they will make sure that you know that they know that they are the chief… …I think that’s the only way to coach.”

MB: “Up to week six, you were 5-1, but coming off the bye week, you started struggling [1-3 in next four games]. What happened to affect you after the bye?”
MU: “I don’t know. I look back, and it’s been a while. I don’t know if we came out, and we worked too hard during that time or what happened. I really don’t know. That’s a good question. All I know is that during that time, we went at it. We knew we were good, and we wanted to make sure that we were going to step up to the plate. I wonder if we went too hard.”

MB: “After your injury [in week 12] against the [Los Angeles] Rams, the team kind of banded together, right?” (They ended up winning the final six including the win over the Rams.)
MU: “You know, people ask that. Was that the rallying cry? Mike Utley getting hurt cause the guys to say, ‘My god, we are a good team. Mike has put blood sweat and tears into this game. He believes in us, and we’ve got to start believing in ourselves.’ That might have happened, but all I know is we trained to dang hard in the offseason to allow us to do anything else but win.”

MB: “How did the injury to [starting QB] Rodney Pette [in week eight] affect the team?”
MU: “[Offseason free agent acquisition,] Erik Kramer stepped up and did a good job.”
(Neither quarterback was noticeably better as their QB ratings both bordered around 70, but with Barry Sanders, they ran the ball 456 times and threw it 459, which is an extremely high run-to-pass ration. Sanders gained 1548 yards.)

MB: “What was your first thought when you were down on the ground against Los Angeles on the play that you go paralyzed?”
MU: “I think the biggest thing when I first got injured was, ‘God dangit! I broke something else that didn’t let me walk off the field. My first year when I broke my leg, I told myself I would never be carried off the field. I was carried off in one of those rickshaw things. I really though I wouldn’t be carried off again. Then God dangit! I was. It really took me back. I became angry, and when the cheers of the crowd came up and I gave them the thumbs up to let them know I would be back, it smoothed it over for a time. But, when they got me down to the Henry Ford hospital, I realized I was hurt pretty bad.”

MB: “Knowing the consequences, would you go back again and play football?”
MU: “There is no other way to answer but yes. If I had the God-willing chance to go back and be 315 pounds and 26 years again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. There is no question I’d do it again. To compete against the best of the best in the world is an opportunity that people cannot allow to slide by.”

MB: “Is there anything the NFL can do to help prevent injuries like yours?”
MU: “There are two things that as a business owner—it can be profesional football, college, high school—is to motivate people to have a knowledge so they can have a second career. The other thing is when it come to play a sport or anything you can do out there is to make sure everybody learns to take responsibility for their actions. People always want to point fingers for this and that. God dangit! Quit pointing fingers, and start looking at yourself and saying what can I do to better myself. If you do that every single day, you are going to be better at whatever you chose to do…”

MB: “How much money did you have saved up from your career?”
MU: “I basically saved all my money. The two big things I bought from my career were a Ford Bronco, the first thing and most expensive thing I’ve ever bought, and the second thing was a custom stereo system that really rocks. I put the rest [of my money] in Merrill Lynch.”

MB: “Too many players spend too much now…”
MU: “Yeah, they work for the now instead of waiting for then. My parents had to be frugle, because they both worked hard to give us a chance, and I wanted to make sure that my kids would have a chance when I started a family...”

MB: “What was your involvement with the team after the injury?”
MU: “The number one Detroit Lions fan. That’s what my involvement was. People need to realize that when you play sports, if you are not contributing, you have no place on the team. That’s how the guys get together. You bind together on the field by performing together. And when you aren’t there performing, it’s hard to be a part of it with the players.”

MB: “After the injury, were you ever thinking about getting back onto the field?”
MU: “When I got hurt, I was laying on the field, Ken Fontes, the head trainer for the Lions, comes up, and I said, ‘Sir, take me mouthpiece out.’ For a ballplayer to give up his helmet or his mouthpiece, he’s done. I knew I was in serious trouble. I didn’t know what level of an injury I had, but I knew I needed help. When I’ve played ball, I have lost feeling in both arms before. I have lost feeling in both hambstrings, but I have never ever lost strength. This time, I lost strength, and I knew I needed the doctors. When I came to from the surgery, I knew my career was over right then and there.”

MB: “It must have been pretty frusterating…”
MU: “It was devastating, because something was taken away from me that I did since I was seven years old. This injury took the game that I loved to do more than anything else away from me.”