When Mike Utley has bad days — since suffering three broken vertebrae in his neck while playing for the Detroit Lions 24 years ago — one of the memories that helps him get through tough times is walking through the tunnel at Washington State’s Martin Stadium.
The rush of taking the field, the pageantry of college football, the adrenaline of that moment, Utley still remembers it today.
“They asked me, ‘Mike, what are the things you remember most about Washington State in your football career?’” Utley said. “I said, to be honest with you, the first time I ran out in uniform out of tunnel in that stadium into Martin Stadium, and the last time, were both exactly the same enthusiasm and excitement and testosterone-filled love for the game as I did back then and still do now.
“If you have a chance to stop and snapshot something, if you can create a positive constructive atmosphere for that moment and you’re able to carry that through your tough times, that is success.”
Utley, who played three seasons for the Lions (1989-91), was one of 14 players and two coaches selected Friday for enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame. The group will be inducted in December.
During his Washington State career (1985-88), he was a three-time All-Pac-10 selection and one-time All-America guard who inspired many after he was paralyzed by the neck injury in the pros.
Utley famously gave the thumbs-up sign when he was carted off the Silverdome field during a Nov. 17, 1991, game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Utley, who now helps support spinal cord research through his Mike Utley Foundation, said he never envisioned himself a Hall of Famer while playing.
“I had great guys to play with at Washington State,” Utley said. “My first quarterback was Mark Rypien, Ed Blount, Timm Rosenbach for two (seasons). I had Ed Tingstad as my running back, Steve Broussard and (Rich) Swinton. It was absolutely phenomenal for the offensive line working with those guys. I mean, did I know that things like that could happen? I had absolutely no clue until you get all done, and then especially your senior year they said, ‘Hey you know what, you have an opportunity to go pro.’”
Along with Utley, former Lion Herb Orvis (Colorado), Randall Cunningham (UNLV), Bert Jones (LSU), Derrick Brooks (Florida State), Rod Woodson (Purdue), Troy Davis (Iowa State) and Tim Krumrie (Wisconsin) are some of the other inductees in this year’s class.
“It’s a gift that I will not take lightly,” Utley said. “Not only do I honor what these guys have done, but it’s the game of football and the opportunity parents, coaches have given myself and all these other fellas. And I just hope I can give back as much as football has given me.”
Orvis played for the Lions in 1972-77.