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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Spirit Unbroken by Injury

NEW YORK -- His handshake is firm, his attitude upbeat, his message simple. "Make something positive out of something negative,'' Mike Utley said. "Ask yourself to do something today that you couldn't do yesterday.''

It's almost three years since Utley got tangled up blocking on a pass play for the Detroit Lions and fell on his head, three years since they wheeled him off the field at the Pontiac Silverdome, his sixth and seventh vertebrae crushed.

Utley flashed the thumbs-up signal that day to his teammates and the crowd to tell them that he was all right, that he would be back.

Then he almost died.

A couple of times.

"The first nine days in the hospital, I didn't sleep a wink,'' Utley said. "I had more heart monitors than you can ever imagine.''

He was permitted to watch a football game in late November. "That night I was back in the ICU,'' he said. "I threw a blood clot in my lungs. I should be gone.''

For some inexplicable reason, he survived.

The injury would challenge Utley, spiritually and physically. In the months ahead, his weight would fall from 142 kilograms to 97.

"Before I got hurt, I prided myself as being as physical and possible,'' he said. "There's no reason to stop that. It makes you feel better about yourself and more independent.''

So Utley passes on the handicap ramp, aims his wheelchair and bumps his way down staircases. And the guy who couldn't lift 112 grams when he got hurt now lifts 63-kilogram dumbbells.

When football was taken away, Utley missed the adrenaline rush of the game. For replacement, he's begun skiing on a specially designed ski and sky diving. Next on his agenda is kayaking. Utley is not a miracle man. Instead, he is an advertisement for intensity, for hard work, for believing in himself. When Dennis Byrd of the New York Jets broke his neck two years ago, Utley talked to him, not about the injury but rather other things like games they had played in. Then, when it was time to leave, Utley told Byrd, "Get out of that chair. Throw it away.''

Byrd succeeded. Utley remains in his chair. He believes that condition will change one day.

"I've still got some unfinished business at the Silverdome,'' he said. "I want to go back there and walk out.''