In 1991, a young offensive lineman for the Detroit Lions, after battling injuries in his first two seasons, had finally clamped down on the starting right guard position. It was a hard climb for the former Aloha Bowl MVP and third-round pick, but he had made it. He was battling alongside and against behemoths; the very best professional football had to offer.
But on November 17th of that year, his life changed forever. A freak injury, one you wouldn’t even notice in real-time and had to struggle to see in slow-motion, had a devastating effect. On that day, Mike Utley would cease to exist as a gladiator on the field of battle, as he fell to the ground awkwardly, breaking his neck at the 5th, 6th, and 7th cervical vertebrae.
While Utley has never slowed in his efforts to rise above his fate, he ended that day effectively as a paraplegic, even though most men with his injury would have been paralyzed from the neck down.
Every day Utley wakes up, he is faced with one truth. Not only is he no longer a world-class athlete, performing in modern-day gladiatorial arenas with fellow warriors, but he requires a wheelchair just to get to the bathroom. Utley has succeeded where many lesser men would fail, has overcome those defeats and turned them into new battles to fight new causes to work for.
But you wonder how many times he thinks, “If I didn’t try to take the legs out from under that guy, would I still be walking today?" Utley is far from alone, a once-proud athlete who now is left to wonder post-career if the money and glory was worth the lifetime of payments.
These tragic stories remind us that the National Football League is a violent mistress, lavishing great rewards on the mighty athletes, and delivering swift exits for others. It’s a hard road to walk for these players, for whom their body is often their only tool for success. They have grown up masters of their domain, demigods trapped on Earth battling other titans sixteen Sundays a year. And, in these rare but heartbreaking instances, not only are their careers taken away, but all their very ability to function in everyday tasks. They are left to wonder “what if” as they battle just to get to the dinner table and eat a meal.
While a career-ending injury can be this devastating for many players, there’s another fate that can be dealt to a player from the fickle mistress that is football. Seen many times as a blessing, careers have come to a screeching halt just in the nick of time, giving those players a lifetime with their faculties, but an end to heroic days on the field of battle.
It’s a bittersweet moment for many players in Packer history. In 1962, a young linebacker suffered a critical injury against the Colts. Nelson Toburen was “lucky”, as they say. The second-year player, trying to impress his coach in his first start, went full-board into a tackle of Johnny Unitas, snapped his neck, and lay motionless on the field, panic going through his mind.
Quick thinking by the team doctors was the sliver of difference between Toburen spending the rest of his life like Mike Utley and spending a life just like “everybody else”. But that day, his career ended--despite still looking in the mirror and seeing a young, blonde, perfectly-chiseled physique looking back at him. He could still run, still jump, still lift weights; but he had to stand on the sidelines as his teammates took home the championship that year.
The name “Toburen” has all but disappeared from the Packer lexicon, and you have to wonder if it might today be sitting in the Ring of Honor with “Hornung”, “Nitschke”, and “Starr”…if it weren’t for that one play. Toburen fought the diagnosis. “I could hardly accept I couldn’t play anymore. Doctor Nellen was not going to budge on that. Even when I was in Topeka, when things got tight I went to see some more orthopedic surgeons with the idea I might play. It would not have been wise.”
When the Packers tee off against the Falcons tonight, they will be facing a defensive backs coach who shares the same story. Tim Lewis was a cornerback for the Packers in 1986, and my favorite player at the time. Given the lack of talent around him, it wasn't hard for him to be a favorite. Lewis was a quiet, but productive DB, starting for Forrest Gregg’s lackluster team.
But in a game against the Bears that year, Lewis bruised his vertebrae. The former first-rounder went from the cornerstone of the defense to unemployed in an instant. "I went to see Forrest Gregg and he was in tears, and then I started crying and I realized it was over,” Lewis said. “That was when the realization that I was not going to play again hit me. I wanted to play again.”
The impact of Lewis’s injury was catastrophic for the Packers, who were already a struggling team that lost theirlynchpin on one play. But Lewis lived to walk and find another career, despite the pain of seeing all he had worked for disappear in a heartbeat. "I cried for one day" said Lewis. "Fortunately, I found something that made me happy. I never really looked back, never said, `What if ...?' "
Lewis makes it sound easy, looking back in hindsight…and perhaps watching Mike Utley being carried off the field, never to stand on his own two feet again adds a necessary element of vision that a young gladiator has never really needed up until that point in his life. And that urge of seeing that window of opportunity turning into a closing door make you want to scream, to beg for just one more season, one more game.
One more play.
One player who might have fought the inevitable and gotten away with it was another one of my favorite players, wide receiver Sterling Sharpe. His spectacular, Hall of Fame-destined career was derailed in 1994 with a couple of apparent stingers in consecutive games that benched him for the playoffs. Ultimately, he never played another game.
Of all players who have suffered such injuries, the bombastic Sharpe possibly fought it the hardest, unable to accept the end to his dominance on the field. Some players, like Terrance Murphy, never got started before they had to end their career. Others, like Lewis and Toburen, were barely getting started. But Sharpe was perhaps the best receiver in the game at the time, on a team that seemed destined for greatness.
For several years prior to the stingers, Sharpe had been drilling holes in the back of his helmet, tying it to his shoulder pads with shoelaces. At the time, few of us thought much of it. Sharpe was probably trying to protect his neck a bit, and had an unorthodox way of doing it.
Did he already know something? Was he told there was a chance he could suffer severe injury? Was Sharpe buying that one extra season by tying back his helmet, preventing his head from getting pushed forward awkwardly, as we had seen so many times with players like Utley?
In the end, Sharpe left the game and went on to a broadcasting career, but has made no bones about where he felt his place in history should have been if he hadn’t been forced to quit. He’d be a Hall of Famer, perhaps right up there with Jerry Rice and Don Hutson. Perhaps he’d have a street or a practice facility named after him.
But those are the scenarios Sharpe is left to battle with for the rest of his life, despite having the ability to stand up and introduce his brother into the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year. He’s always talking with those Been Brothers: Woulda Been, Coulda Been, and Shoulda Been.
He fought it, too. He told the Packers to pay him his salary for 1995 or release him. The Packers released him. He filed a lawsuit against the NFLPA and the NFL for his salary, which was eventually dropped. He claimed he was only taking one year off, and was going to come back in 1996 with another team, perhaps the large-market Giants. He didn’t.
Today, Sharpe knows he’s lucky. He knows that Mike Utley isn’t going to be out cleaning the pool, shooting a round of golf, or chasing his kids around the house. He knows that, in the end, this worked out for the best. It could have been much, much worse.
As Nick Collins looks ahead to the next six months of recovery from the spinal fusion surgery he underwent Thursday night, his prognosis is still murky and cloudy. The Packers have not put him on season-ending IR, despite the fact he won't be allowed to play the rest of the season, regardless.
It sounds painfully like Sharpe’s situation, where doctors' recommendations are hedged as medical science has advanced. Lewis opined that he was never given the possibilities of coming back, as Sharpe and Collins have. Somehow, you get the feeling that both the Packers and the doctors are stepping back and hoping Collins makes the decision himself, that he will come to the conclusion that it isn’t worth risking his ability to walk and retire on his own.
All the players I mentioned have gone on to solid careers: Toburen moved on to a successful career as a lawyer and District judge; Lewis is an NFL assistant coach once rumored as a head coach candidate; and Sharpe is a popular broadcaster. Collins has every chance to follow in their footsteps.
But like every one of those players, this isn't the time for rational thought. Not when you can step onto the field and run just as you always have. The instincts, the speed, the knowledge are all still there. When you know you could line up and play…RIGHT NOW…as you always have. No, this is the time to rage, to cry out against the world and curse it for giving you everything you need except the ability to use it.
Nick Collins might line up again for the Green and Gold, but I wouldn’t count on it. And if his injury forces him to retire prematurely at the age of 28, he will be able to look back on a career of Pro Bowls and show off the Super Bowl ring on his finger. Right now, though…it’s not enough.
What would you give to just have the experience of being drafted and go through training camp, like Terrance Murphy? Or, to take Lambeau Field as a starter under Vince Lombardi, like Nelson Toburen? What would you pay to be a starter in the NFL, to be a Pro Bowl player? What would you do to stand as a Super Bowl Champion?
Would you pay with your ability to use your body from the neck down for the rest of your life?
This is the bittersweet reality Nick Collins may be facing right now, a curse cleverly disguised in the form of a blessing. Or, is it the other way around?
Either way, he would be a smart man to listen to his doctors and err on the side of caution. And he will have plenty of former players who will be able to listen and understand something the rest of us can’t possibly imagine.
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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