Lion linebacker Chris Spielman knows that playing football involves risks that no player likes to talk about. But there was no ducking the following conversation with his shaken wife, Stefanie, last week, two nights after Detroit guard Mike Utley had been left paralyzed from the chest down as a result of a freak accident in the Lions' Nov. 17 game with the Rams.
He said, "I don't want you to be afraid when I'm playing. So many things happen that are out of our control. Just try to relax."
She said, "I'll try. But you can't guarantee me nothing will ever happen to you."
He said, "I can't. That's football."
The players know that on any play they could suffer an injury that would leave them paralyzed, but they accept that when they put on the pads. Utley was merely pass-blocking Los Angeles defensive tackle David Rocker in the fourth quarter when he got hurt. As Rocker leapt to try to block the throw, he pushed off on Utley's shoulders. Utley, who was lunging to finish his block, fell forward and struck his head on the artificial turf. He fractured a vertebra in his neck and damaged his spinal cord. He is not expected to walk again.
Just hours after Utley was injured, in the Browns-Oilers game televised on ESPN, a terrifying helmet-to-helmet collision between Cleveland wide receiver Danny Peebles and Houston safety Bubba McDowell left Peebles in a heap and with numbness in his extremities. Peebles, who spent two days in the hospital, apparently has no neurological damage, but he will spend the rest of the season on injured reserve.
Utley is paralyzed. Peebles walks. It's football fate, as if Utley fell in the shower and didn't get up and Peebles were in a head-on car crash and walked away.
With 22 players on the field and approximately 140 plays in an NFL game, there are theoretically 3,080 chances for players to suffer an injury that causes paralysis. Yet in the 1980s, which provided nearly seven million instances for NFL players to suffer such an injury, none did.
The last NFL player to suffer extensive paralysis as a result of contact related to football was Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley, who on Aug. 12, 1978, was hit head-on by Raider safety Jack Tatum and became a quadriplegic. In fact, the last three NFL players to have suffered paralyzing injuries—Cardinals kicker Steve Little, Redskins defensive back Steve Streater and Steeler defensive lineman Gabe Rivera—were crippled in automobile accidents.
All of this, of course, shouldn't minimize the dangers associated with playing pro football. Every week players are sidelined with shredded knees, shattered bones and concussions. But paralysis? There's little the NFL—or any of us—can do to eliminate it from the game. Let's just hope for the best for Mike Utley.