Recently, I was able to reach Mike Utley over the telephone while he was in Dallas awaiting a flight to Miami. At one time, Utley was a great Detroit Lions offensive lineman, until an NFL game on November 17, 1991, against the Rams, when a hard hit caused a severe spinal cord injury. He became a wheelchair-using paraplegic.
Now he heads the Mike Utley Foundation, which is working hard for a cure for spinal cord injuries by selectively funding promising research, rehabilitation, and education programs.
‘The Foundation started in 1992, just shortly after I got hurt,’ said 42-year-old Utley. ‘At the time, I wasn’t able to transfer or feed myself, and didn’t have feeling in my hands. I had to have someone run (the Foundation) for me.’
It took about six years of intensive therapy, but in April 1998 Utley finally was able to begin living independently back home in Washington state. In 2002, he took over control of the Foundation, which today has no paid employees, only volunteers.
The Foundation has two great projects in the works.
‘For one, we have spent $110,000 to design and create a ‘Mike Utley Terrain Park’ at Craig Hospital in Colorado,’ he said. The terrain park, which opens this summer, will give spinal cord injury paraplegics or high-functioning quadriplegics a safe place to physically learn how to negotiate around and over various real-world movement barriers.
Utley said, ‘Once you learn the basics of surviving with spinal cord injury, you can then get out in the world and live independently.’
Other Foundation funding will open the Mike Utley Human Performance Center at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan. ‘It will be for people with spinal cord injury, and will include physical training, weightlifting, and occupational therapy,’ he said. ‘People there will be able to do everything Mike Utley does.’
As for life and work, he said, ‘Am I satisfied where I am? No. I’m happy, but not satisfied. I’m working hard every day towards a cure. I run the Foundation with the same philosophy as when I played football. I’m accountable (for my actions) and I help get everyone on the same page.’
The Foundation raises most of its funds through its Thumbs Up Bike Tour, held in Washington this year in September. For it, Utley has had more than 800 able-bodied bikers and 50 hand cyclists.