Friends, family of Lions' Utley recall happy times with a fun-loving giant


DETROIT -- Diagrams of his injured spinal cord appeared in every local newspaper and on every television sportscast. His face, framed by long page-boy-style hair, has become familiar to football fans all over the nation. And Mike Utley's jersey number -- 60 -- decorated the Silverdome on Thanksgiving when his Detroit Lions teammates beat Chicago, 16-6.

But there is much more to Utley than a backbone, a hairdo and number.

Utley, who lies paralyzed at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan after a Nov. 17 freakish football accident, is a fun-loving giant with an affinity for motorcycles, hunting geoduck clams and hard-rock music. He hunts wild boar and coddles his two cats. Among his favorite TV personalities is professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, who visited Utley last week.

Utley isn't yet giving interviews. A few days ago, he moved from the hospital to the Rehabilitation Institute for what will be a long and arduous program of therapy. He is paralyzed from the chest down, yet has told friends he is determined to walk again.

Pete Holbert, a scrawny physics major who roomed with Utley at Washington State, remains one of his closest friends.

"I got body-slammed a lot," said Holbert, who was at the Silverdome the day of the accident. "Mike is a fun guy to have around. He had tons of friends in college and was always enjoying life. That's why it was so hard to see him strapped down, getting into that ambulance. All I could do is stare. I didn't hear anything going on around me."

Holbert flies in from Seattle once a year to watch his buddy play. This year, he happened to choose the Nov. 17 game against the Los Angeles Rams. No special reason; it was one of the few weekends he could get away. He never imagined he would spend the second half of his vacation at Utley's bedside.

"It hasn't really sunk in yet," Holbert said. "It's going to take a while. But he'll always be my best friend, no matter what."

Family and friends find that talking about Utley is good therapy.

"Mike is a big guy, but he can be very gentle," said his mother, Irene, a retired nurse in Seattle. "He has two cats, Roger and Chip, that he had trained to do all kinds of tricks.

"One of my warmest memories of Mike's upbringing was our whole family out on the Washington state coast, digging for geoduck [pronounced gooey-duck] clams. They are big, ugly clams, and you've got to be real fast to catch them. We always had fun doing stuff like that."

The Utleys spent most weekends together on family outings. Utley's father, Frank, a Boeing engineer, and mother moved to Seattle from Missouri in 1960. They had four children in the next six years, hoping the siblings would be as close at heart as they were in age. Their dream came true.

Utley, the second-youngest of the bunch at 25, remains close to his sister, Theresa, 24; and brothers Paul, 30, and Tom, 27. Paul, a truck driver, and Tom, a saw sharpener, are in Detroit with their brother this weekend.

Long hair -- sometimes bleached -- and dangling skull-and-cross bone earrings entered Utley's wardrobe after graduation from Kennedy Catholic High School, but his parents didn't mind.

"Mike has always been independent, his own person, and we're proud of him for that," his mother said.

University of Miami (Fla.) offensive line coach Greg Smith, who coached Utley at Washington State, said: "Mike is an off-the-wall kind of guy, determined that he isn't going to be like any other player. He is going to be Mike Utley."

Never fond of conformity, Utley joined an alternative fraternity on Washington State's Spokane campus.

Utley, Holbert and their friend Chris Dyko were active in a mock frat called Rho Alpha Tau (RAT). The only requirement was that a member have a silly nickname. Utley was "Ogre," after a $H character in the movie "Revenge of the Nerds;" Holbert was "Biff" and Dyko was "Mongo," for Alex Karras' role in "Blazing $l Saddles."

The three friends stay in touch. They took spring trips to Mazatlan in Mexico and the Caribbean the past two years.

"Mike Utley is one of the most unique individuals I have ever known," said Dyko, who played alongside Utley on the Washington State offensive line in 1987-89. "He likes to live life, and he puts everyone around him in a good mood.

"It's tough imagining him not running around, a guy so big and strong."

Utley is 6 feet 6, 290 pounds.

University of Miami coach Dennis Erickson, Utley's head coach in college, chuckled when asked his most vivid memory of Utley.

"It always kind of struck me funny to see a 6-foot-6 guy riding around campus on a little motor scooter," Erickson said. "He usually had someone on the back, too.

"Mike was a load of fun to be around. He made people relax. Even though he had many friends, he was never, never a discipline problem."

John L. Smith, head coach at the University of Idaho, was a Cougars assistant during Utley's college career. He remembers Utley well.

"His heart was as big as his body," Smith said. "You look at his hair and think he's a loose cannon, but he's not. He's a genuine, caring, honest person."

Friends who have visited Utley since the accident have foun him in good spirits.

One visitor Friday was Rob Trott, host of "Great Lake Outdoors." Lions guard Ken Dallafior introduced Utley to the Michigan outdoors, and before long, they were doing guest spots on Trott's weekly show. They hunted wild boar in Ubly, Mich., in May and pheasant in September. Utley had ordered a bow that just arrived last week. A January boar hunt was on his calendar.

"As a hunter, Mike is a natural," Trott said. "He has great hand-eye coordination. I hunt for a living, and the guy beat me at skeet shooting. He said it was his first time out, but I'm not sure I believe it."

Trott said Utley vowed Friday to walk and hunt again.

"He wasn't talking about 'if.' he was talking about 'when,' " Trott said. "I had heard he was in good spirits and found it hard to believe, but he really is. He enjoys life and accepts challenges, and if there's any one of the Lions I know that can overcome this, Mike Utley can."

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