10 youthful questions for Mike Utley

HE IS ONE OF THE MOST decorated players ever to wear crimson and gray. But his legend, on the Palouse and around the nation, stems from what he's done off the field to help others since a fateful day in 1991 when, as the starting right guard for the Detroit Lions, he was paralyzed during a game. As a little kid, I worshipped Mike Utley.

Now, as Cougfan.com's teenager in charge of youthful questions, I have an even greater respect for Mike after having the opportunity to interview him on a range of topics.

Talk about a dream come true.

Mike is personable, articulate and a devout Cougar. He is also tenacious. He may be in a wheelchair, but that doesn't stop him from skydiving, skiing, kayaking, scuba diving, and hand-cycling. When he was injured in 1991, he delivered a thumbs up to the hushed crowd at Pontiac Stadium and to millions more watching on TV. That enduring symbol of optimism and perseverance describes the very essence of Mike Utley the man.

The File On
MIKE UTLEY
HOMETOWN:
Seattle

CURRENT HOME:
Orondo, Wash.

AGE:
41

HIGH SCHOOL:
John F, Kennedy in Burien, where long-time head coach Tom Merrill considers him the greatest player in the school's star-studded history.

WSU CAREER:
Came to Pullman in 1984, choosing the Cougars over the Ducks. Played for Jim Walden and Dennis Erickson. As a senior in 1988 he was a consensus first-team All-American and to this day remains one of the three most nationally decorated players in Cougar history, along with Jason Hanson and Jerome Harrison. The 1988 Cougars finished 9-3 and defeated Houston in the Aloha Bowl.

PRO CAREER:
The third pick of the third round by Detroit in the 1989 NFL draft. Became an instant starter for the Lions, but then was plagued by injuries for more than a year. In his third season he started every game for the Lions until breaking the sixth and seventh vertebrae in his back.

FAMILY
Wife Danni, whom he met one day at the gym six years ago. No football fan, she had never heard of him before.

Last fall Mike received the Walter Camp "Man of the Year" award for his personal courage with his own rehabilitation and for the work he's done through The Mike Utley Foundation to find a cure for spinal cord injuries. The centerpiece of the foundation's fundraising is the annual "Dam2Dam" bike tour along the Columbia River near East Wenatchee. Mike asks every Cougar to consider riding in the event or making a donation. The date is Sept. 29 -– a Saturday strategically picked so as not to conflict with a Cougar home game.

I could have spent all day talking with Mike, but my editors are big on brevity, so here are some of the highlights of my talk with this legendary Cougar.

CF.C: Your old Cougar teammates Timm Rosenbach and Steve Broussard are coaches for the Cougs -- are there any old stories their players should know?

Utley: I very much enjoyed competing with Timm and Steve when they were great athletes ... they were focused on playing and winning ... Looking back at it, as far as stories I most remember playing UCLA (rated No. 1 in the nation) and we all came together as a team and that was probably the biggest enjoyment I had. When people talk about stories, it's just that win at UCLA that I remember." Editor's note: On national TV against Troy Aikman, the Cougars stormed back from a 27-6 third quarter deficit to win 34-30.

CF.C: How do you think your 1988 Aloha Bowl team compares to the all-time great Cougar teams?

Utley: "That's a great question, man. Every year, genetically, people get bigger and stronger -- so could we compete with the guys who play now at the college level? No way. There is no way we would be able to do it. But on that given day, we were a great football team and to be able to beat the Houston Cougars there, in Hawaii, and set the path for the Cougs to get back on the bowl circuit again (was special)."

CF.C: What was the first thought that went through your head when you got hurt while playing for the Lions?

Utley: "To be honest with you, ‘Oh God, here we go again, another injury.' Just another injury -- that's exactly what went through my mind -- ‘Oh my God, here we go again.' As a ballplayer I knew I was in deep, deep trouble being hurt like that. But to say that I was paralyzed or anything crazy like that, no it never crossed my mind at all."

CF.C: What was your favorite summer vacation when you were growing up?

Utley: "In college, for the summer, I stayed in Pullman the majority of the time and being able to ride my motorcycle out there in the Palouse and that kind of stuff, to me, that was probably my most enjoyable summertime adventure."


MIKE UTLEY VS. MICHIGAN IN 1987

CF.C: If you hadn't chosen WSU, what other schools would you have considered going to?

Utley: "The University of Michigan. It was the coach back then (Bo Schembechler) -- I just enjoyed that kind of coaching and I liked who he was ... back when I was being recruited, it was (between) WSU and the University of Oregon. So I would have been a Cougar or a Duck. But two things -- I couldn't wear green and I couldn't have a mascot that was a fighting Duck, that just doesn't sound very tough having a Duck as a mascot. It came down to the fact that I wanted to stay in-state and then Coach Walden persuaded me that way, so I stayed."

CF.C: In an interview you did with Cougfan.com last fall you talked about giving guys snot bubbles when you were a player. Is there any particular instance that you remember?

Utley: "You know when people ask me questions about the physical aspect of football, I just loved the physical contact. I loved it as a kid, with my parents, when I would wrestle with my dad ... and then later on in football it becomes a violent contact. I just loved the game of football because it allows a man to be a man and everyone else just goes by the wayside. For that short period of time while you are out there competing, it's a man's sport; from that level all the way up until the pros, you compete against schools and you compete against the best of the best and for my three years in the NFL I was one of the 28 starting right guards -- 28 NFL teams, that means I was one of the 28 best men in the world and that is the way I look at it. But I earned that right to be there from what I learned with the Cougars, in high school, and pee-wee. I used it all to play at that level."

CF.C: What do you consider the greatest honor you received when you were playing football?

Mike: I think being a Consensus All-American out at WSU. It showed that the time and effort that I put in was noticed. But I would have never been a Consensus All-American if it hadn't been for Chris Dyko, Jim Michalczik, Dave Fakkema, Timm Rosenbach, and even Steve Broussard. All those guys allowed me to become a Consensus All-American by their team effort. One guy gets the recognition, I understand that, but it was a team jaunt rather than an individual performance."

CF.C: What has been your greatest regret in life?

Utley: "My biggest regret…um…you know when you say regret that means something that I did or I created ... it would be spending more time with my older brother Tom, who passed on. So it's probably not making the choice of doing more with him."

CF.C: What part of the Mike Utley Foundation has given you the greatest satisfaction?

Mike: "I think the number one thing from watching a foundation grow is the people who have been with me from the very beginning, and the new people and the respect we have gotten nationally … I love people being able to say, ‘Thumbs up Mike, keep going.'"

CF.C: What was skydiving like?

Mike: "Oh, it was awesome. People always say that going up in the plane is one thing, reality really taps you on the front door when you open up that door and your face feels that wind and your feet kind of dangle out the door and then you count 1,2,3 and actually leave a perfectly good airplane at 13,000 feet. It was absolutely awesome, I will be very happy to do that again. It is a rush, because once a man says he's gonna do something he's got to follow through on it and that's part of the decision to go to it … I can do those things more now than I could as a ball player. At 315 pounds I wasn't able to go sky diving but now I can."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hayden Eller, 14, is an eighth grader in Chelan, Wash., where he's a multi-sport standout. His addiction to crimson and gray started five years ago when he attended his first game at Martin Stadium, a Cougar win over Idaho. His father, Jeff, is a 1985 WSU graduate. Hayden has named his dog Butch, and currently is working to turn his little brother and mom into avid Coug fans.


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