I was eating lunch and doing my customary afternoon tour of all the sports sites I follow when I stumbled on an article about Mike Utley on Grantland.com. The article mentions that this year marked 20 years since Mike Utley’s tragic paralysis, and talks about the now universal thumbs up hand gesture that is almost always credited to Mike Utley as the signal to fans that the player will be fine.
Also mentioned in the article, was the year of the accident. 1991. As in 20 years ago. The thought of that year and the time that has passed made me reflect on a number of parallels between the 1991 season and this season for the Lions, and the Lions fans.
I unknowingly became a Lions fan at 8 years old when I saw the 1988 Holiday Bowl in which Barry Sanders ran for 176 yards and scored 5 touchdowns. I was very new to football and couldn’t totally appreciate how amazingly different Sanders was, but he just seemed to stand out from everybody else on the field. At that moment I decided that wherever Sanders ended up, so would my loyalty. (In retrospect, this was one of the worst decisions I have made in my life so far, three years after I officially became a Lions fan, my hometown Packers would launch into two of the greatest decades in team history. The Lions…well you know.)
Fast forward to 1991. The Lions have one of the most unique players the NFL would ever see, the Mike Utley accident occurs, the Lions come off a 6-10 record in 1990 to go a franchise record 12-4 for their first winning season in 8 years and would go on to win their first playoff game since 1957.
Now jump ahead to 2011. The Lions have one of the most unique players the NFL has ever seen in Calvin Johnson, Jerome Harrison’s life was saved by an attempted trade, the Lions are coming off a 6-10 season to post the first winning record in 10 seasons and have their playoff destiny in their hands. The similarities are staggering.
There can be no mistaking how unique Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson are as players. Barry had the breathtaking agility and vision as well as speed and pure power packed into a deceptive 5’8″ 208 lb frame. Meanwhile, Calvin Johnson packs blinding deep speed, indescribable aerial acrobatics, some of the best hands in the game and the ability to score from anywhere on the field packed into a staggering 6’5″ 235 lb frame.
Both players can do things that even their most talented peers can’t even dream of. Both players cause defensive coordinators to design unique schemes to specifically counter them. When was the last time you saw a defense go into a nine man front to defend a running back (excluding on the goalline?) When was the last time you saw a receiver triple covered, or double teamed like a punt gunner? Fans, players, coaches, front offices and media enjoy the spectacle of both players and everybody realizes that they are once in a blue moon talents.
The 1991 Lions had a compelling (despite tragic) human interest story in Mike Utley and the 2011 Lions have a slightly less compelling, but infinitely less tragic human interest story in Jerome Harrison. Utley was tragically paralyzed from the waist down against the Rams and has been one of the faces of the effort to rehabilitate spinal injuries. Jerome Harrison’s story probably doesn’t have the staying power of Utley’s, but the fact is a man’s life was potentially saved by a trade. Harrison was being shipped to the Eagles for Ronnie Brown and Harrison failed his physical with the Eagles when a brain tumor was discovered. Truth be told, it was probably a matter of time before the tumor was detected, but when dealing with a brain tumor timing could be everything.
Now obviously, the Lions have not clinched a playoff berth yet, and if/when they do they will most likely go on the road to play New Orleans or Dallas as an underdog. However, the fact of the matter is they are not only relevant again, but a dangerous team that nobody wants to face. Time will tell if the Lions make the playoffs and can end their 20 year playoff win drought, but it would be nice to stick with the script used 20 years ago wouldn’t it?