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On This Date in Sports November 17, 1991: Thumbs Up

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

During a 21-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams at the Pontiac Silverdome, Mike Utley, an offensive guard with the Detroit Lions suffers and injury that leaves him paralyzed. While leaving the field, Utley flashes a thumbs-up sign. Utley’s thumbs-up would inspire the team the rest of the way as the Lions won their last six games to finish 12-4, winning their first division title since 1983.

Mike Utley was born on December 20, 1965, in Seattle. A star lineman, Utley went to Washington State. In 1988, Utley helped lead the Cougars to a win in the Aloha Bowl; it was Wazzu’s first bowl win in 72 years. Named an All-American, Mike Utley would be drafted by the Lions in the third round, 59th overall of the NFL Draft. In the NFL, Mike Utley was showing great potential but proved to be injury-prone as he was limited to five games in his rookie season. In 1990, Utley continued to play through injury as he played with broken ribs all season.

In 1991, Mike Utley appeared to be finally over the injury issues, as he played in the first ten games, without any problem. The Lions were playing well that season, holding a 6-4 record under coach Wayne Fontes. The Lions season started poorly as they were beaten 45-0 by the Washington Redskins in the season opener. Each of the Lions, four losses in the first ten games came on the road in sports, played on natural grass. The Lions would meanwhile win each of their games played on artificial turf.

Facing the 3-7 Los Angeles Rams, the Lions were 6-4 and coming off two straight NFC Central losses to the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Needing a win over the struggling Rams, the Lions struggles from the previous two weeks seemed to carry over as the Rams held a 10-7 lead after three quarters, as Barry Sanders was limited to 57 yards. After the first play of the fourth quarter, Mike Utley lay on the turf, unable to feel his legs. He suffered a spinal cord injury to his sixth and seventh vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. On the play, Detroit took the lead, as Erik Kramer connected with Robert Clark for am 11-yard touchdown pass. Despite the injury, Utley mustered up enough strength to raise his thumb up as he was stretchered off the field. After the injury to Mike Utley, the Lions played inspired as Kramer added a touchdown pass to Mike Farr, as the Lions won 21-10.

Thumbs Up would become the Detroit Lions rallying cry the remainder of the season. The Lions would finish the season with six straight wins to close the season at 12-4. This included a 16-6 win over the Bears on Thanksgiving that would be the difference in winning the division. The Lions would end an eight-year playoff drought, winning just their second division title since 1957. The 12-4 record was also a franchise record for wins in a season. In the Divisional Playoffs, the Lions would crush the Dallas Cowboys 38-6, their first postseason win since the 1957 NFL Championship Game. It remains, their only postseason win since 1957 as their season ended as it began with a loss to the Redskins in the NFC Championship Game.