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EXCEPTIONAL PARENT gives MIKE UTLEY THUMBS UP!

The athlete and former pro-football star, who has a spinal cord injury, receives the EP Exceptional Person of the Year Award.

Growing up in a loving family environment in Washington, Mike Utley, his two brothers and sister were raised to believe in themselves, and always persevere. Mike recalls the mix of love, support, fun and discipline that shaped the family philosophy, "My mom and dad taught me to try, try, try. They have always told me to try whatever interested me because you never know where you will be tomorrow, or if you even will have a tomorrow." This advice would later serve as the basis of Mike's life motto, "Thumbs Up!"

Mike Utley's love of football, determination, and aggressive nature would later land him a position as an offensive guard (#60) with the Detroit Lions. "I learned that there were a lot of guys that were smarter than me, many were faster, but no one was tougher. Toughness is all about attitude, and boy did I have it, luckily I never lost it."

Patience is a virtue

It was during the fourth quarter of a Lions vs. Rams showdown on November 17, 1991. Mike went for a routine block, and his life was changed forever. Mike's foot slipped at the same time a Ram's defensive linebacker grabbed Mike's shoulder pad, pulling him to the ground. As he fell, he landed on his head, injuring his 6th and 7th vertebrae.

"I knew I was in trouble when I couldn't move," remembers Mike. "A few moments later, I felt an overwhelming burning sensation from the chest down. Although I knew it was a serious injury, I wanted my team mates and fans to know I would be okay, that I wouldn't give up. So, while they carried me off the field, I gave everyone the `thumbs up' sign." The simple gesture symbolized Mike's hope for recovery and would eventually stand for his commitment to making the future more hopeful for others with disabilities.

Doctors informed Mike that he had an incomplete spinal cord injury, and would never walk again. "I told that Doc that he didn't know me, and I couldn't wait to prove him wrong," explains Utley. "During my rehabilitation, I was taught how to use my mind, and how to best utilize the parts of me that were still working. I tried to focus on what I could do, and my toughness became my best asset. I learned that I had to work for myself before I could get help from anyone else. Meanwhile, I was learning a new quality--patience."

Making a difference

While Mike was learning to be patient, he was also anxious to help find a cure. With the support of his agent, Mike and his Lions team mates decided to form the Mike Utley Foundation. The mission of the Mike Utley Foundation is to raise funds and awareness for spinal cord research, rehabilitation, and educational programs. George Demsey, who had spent 11 years with the Easter Seals Society, was recruited as the Foundation's Executive Director. "I came on board because I wanted to help Mike, but more importantly because I wanted to raise awareness and help raise research funds to help everyone with a spinal cord injury," explains Demsey.

Each year, the Foundation holds a celebrity golf tournament. Mike's friends, NFL football players, gather together to hold a fun, annual golf outing, where golfers can team up with their favorite NFL players for two days of golf, food, and fun--all the while raising money for spinal cord research.

Tough times don't last, tough people do!

Today, eight years after his injury, 33-year-old Mike Utley has learned patience, but has kept his toughness in order to beat the odds. After years of rigorous training and therapy, and sheer determination, he now has some feeling in his legs, and is able to stand on his own for a few moments at a time. According to George Demsey, doctors say, "It's not a miracle, but it is miraculous." Demsey adds, "Without Mike's attitude he never would have made it this far."

Mike continues to try new things, just as his parents taught him to do from an early age. Some of his latest feats include skydiving, scuba diving, snow skiing and kayaking. In the future, Mike hopes to someday get married, have a bunch of kids, attend culinary school, walk his mom to church--and find a cure for spinal cord injuries. When asked what advice he would like to give to other families, Mike replies, "It doesn't take a pro athlete to take yourself to the next level, it just takes plain old-fashioned guts."

Mike Utley Receives the 1999 Exceptional Person of The Year Award at Celebrity Golf Tournament

On May 17, 1999, during the 8th Annual Mike Utley Golf Classic, Exceptional Parent Magazine and Sigma-tau Pharmaceuticals presented Mike Utley with "The Exceptional Person of the Year Award." Mike was chosen to receive this award for his untiring dedication to the care, nurturing, and education of children and young adults with disabilities and special health care needs, and the compassion and support he provides for those children and their families through his creation of The Mike Utley Foundation and "Project Challenge."

NFL players such as Mo Layton, Mike Devlin, Eric Allen, along with retired players Todd Kalis, Eddie Murray, and Tom Ricketts were some of Mike's buddies who donated their time for a good cause. The first day of the golf classic was played on the private course of Jack Nicklaus' Superstition Mountain. According to Jeff Steury, Director of Golf for Superstition Mountain, the tournament included 150 players made up of NFL players, celebrities, and avid golfers.

In addition to raising funds for spinal cord research, the Mike Utley Foundation Golf Classic donates funds to the Boys & Girls clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix (BGCMP) in an effort they jointly created called "Project Challenge." Project Challenge allows children with disabilities to participate in organized athletic activities. Each Saturday, the kids are paired with able-bodied children to enjoy the thrill of baseball, football, and soccer, among other activities.
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Author:Hacker, Julie Venners
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Dec 1, 1999
Words:1016
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