Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin is recovering following extensive medical treatment after suffering cardiac arrest during a Monday Night Football game earlier this month.
Hamlin’s on-field collapse hit especially close to home for the Detroit Lions.
The only NFL player to ever die during a game was Lions receiver Chuck Hughes in 1971, coincidentally against the Bills, and Detroit has seen its share of other frightening on-field injuries.
That includes former Lions offensive lineman Mike Utley, who was left permanently paralyzed during a game in November 1991. Utley says what Hamlin is going through reminds him of the game that cost him his career and changed his life forever.
Listen: Former Lion Mike Utley recalls his own tragic NFL injury after Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest
The following interview was edited for clarity.
Mike Utley: For me, it was a great day. The Lions were playing the Rams and we were doing well as a team. But the first play of the fourth quarter, Eric Kramer called a pass play. I went to do my job, and at the last minute, a gentleman (Rams player David Rocker) raised his hand. I went to take his legs out, he caught me, pulled my shoulder pads down, my head hit the turf and I became a C5-6-7 quadriplegic instantaneously.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Did I know I was paralyzed? No. But I knew I was in trouble because I had never lost strength before. I’ve lost feeling down my arms, my hands, my back. My hamstrings one time. But I have never lost strength. But this time it was taken away from me. I can hear the crowd, you know, cheering and that kind of stuff. And that’s why I gave the thumbs up at that particular time.
But then the second aspect is when reality sets in and I knew I was paralyzed and my career was over. People, the fans, the community all rallied around, helping raise money for the Mike Utley Foundation for Research. But the biggest deal is that my family and my Detroit Lions family, my brothers on the field, they treated me the exact same. They did not allow me to sit and wallow, which I wouldn’t have anyway. But they wouldn’t allow me to…have a “woe is me” kind of situation. That’s the difference. No injury can change you unless you allow it to, except a closed-head injury.
Quinn Klinefelter, WDET News: Some people from any walk of life could feel pretty bitter after that kind of an injury, especially if it’s one that hits you where your physical ability is such an important part of the job. How did you remain able to stay so positive?
To be honest, staying positive is just my nature. As an athlete since I was seven years old who played the great game of football, plus other sports, it came down to where the coach says, “Did you understand what you were supposed to do on that play that you just did?” I’d say, “Yes, sir.” “All right, next play. Let’s move on.” I move on very, very quickly. I don’t care what situation it is. You learn your lesson and you move on.
They stopped the game this time after Damar Hamlin’s injury. But they had carried on after yours. Did you get a sense from your teammates just how tough it could have been to try to keep playing after that?
To me, it was one of those things where that’s their job. Do your job. Football is more than just an individual. I understand why they stopped it for this young man (Hamlin). It’s a slightly different situation and I get it. But the bottom line is, as a ballplayer, you know that risk when you step across that white line. It’s a huge risk. Now, we don’t think that we’re going to kick the bucket, we don’t think we’re gonna get paralyzed. We just knew that sometime our career was going to end. We all know that. It doesn’t take anything away from how devastating this injury is, mine or his, or what he’s going through now. But the game will continue. And we all truly do realize it.
I heard another former NFL offensive lineman talk the other day, he came from a very poor background. And he said, “I play football so that my children won’t have to.” A number of players have questioned whether it’s worth it to put themselves on the line for the sport in the long run. If somebody asked you that, what would you advise them?
Would Mike Utley play again if he could, at 57 years old, wiggle my nose like Tabitha from Bewitched? Yes sir, I would go play again. I have a wife. If I had children, I would think twice. But as a single man, I would go and play it again. Football took very little from me. Football gave me so much more. And that’s the honest truth.
There’s been a big focus on improving safety in the NFL over the years, with concerns over things like concussions and CTE. And a lot of rule changes to try to help. It doesn’t seem like any of that would have really mattered in Damar Hamlin’s case with a heart ailment. But overall, in your opinion, how well do you think the NFL is doing with safeguarding players now?
Oh, I think the NFL has done a great job. There are two aspects of it. The NFL has a vested interest in protecting us on the field at all costs. But the second aspect of it is that players need to take personal responsibility for their actions and for their longevity. It is a business. And when you leave this great game of football, God willing it’s on your own terms, that you’re prepared and you are secure for the rest of your life. So that, as the one lineman said, that his children don’t have to play. But if I had kids, would I allow them to play? The answer’s yes. But also make sure you take personal responsibility when you do things, when you choose to play the game of football.
You mentioned earlier that after your playing days you started the Mike Utley Foundation. How did you decide to start that and how’s it going?
We originally started in ‘92 because when my parents called for some resources, they were few and far between — who to talk to, where to go and so forth. And now that we started this, the wife runs it, people can call and we will give you information on rehab centers, things Mike Utley has done for 31 years to help. And when I work with folks through the foundation, we communicate to parents that your job is to teach your (paralyzed) children, your boy or girl, to stand on their own two feet and be a productive part of society.
And that’s part of the education of being a spinal cord person. Life is gonna go on. Do you want to be a part of this great thing called living? I do.