Today in Sports History: November 17th

11/17/1968 - Heidi interrupts Jets/Raiders game

In the final minutes of a close game between the Jets and Raiders, the made-for-TV movie "Heidi" interrupts it in one of the most infamous gaffes in television history.

If you don't know what the Heidi Game is, click here for an in-depth Inhistoric article:

11/17/1991 - Mike Utley paralyzed

In a game against the Los Angeles Rams, Detroit offensive lineman Mike Utley was blocking David Rocker on a routine pass play. Lions quarterback Erik Kramer threw what would be a touchdown pass to Robert Clark, but on the play, Rocker tangled with Utley in mid-air. Utley fell to the turf face-first and was unable to life himself off the ground. After several minutes of examinations by the team doctor, he was lifted on to a stretcher and slowly wheeled out of the stadium. As his teammates looked on in horror, and as the crowd gave him an encouraging ovation, Utley flashed a thumbs up to the Detroit audience.

"I knew something was strange right away," Rocker said a few years later. "It's that feeling you get when when you see the way a guy falls. You say, 'That's a pretty hard shot.' You see a guy lying on his back and you can see his eyes going down because he's getting ready to lift up. Then the next thing you see is his eyes coming back up, but he's not moving. That's when I realized something was seriously wrong with him. I was no longer an opponent, I was a fellow player. It was like, 'Come on, man, get up.' You just want this person to get up. 'Get up.' You're not seeing it happen. 'Get up.'"

The fall rendered Utley a quadriplegic, and although he regained the use of his hands, he would never walk again. It was a shocking reminder that the football field, for all its glory-making, also took its fair share of causalities. Utley was the highest profiled person to suffer paralysis in a football game since Darryl Stingley, who got injured in a preseason game in 1978 and was confined to a wheelchair the rest of his life.

Utley would later start his own foundation dedicated to finding a cure for paralysis, with the thumbs up as the cause's logo. In their next game in Minnesota, every member of the Lions honored Utley by wearing his No. 60 jersey number on their helmets. No one payed better tribute to Utley than running back Barry Sanders, who ran for a team record 220 yards and four touchdowns.

In his autobiography, Sanders mentioned the injuries to Utley and Reggie Brown (another Lion whose career ended from a spinal injury) as influences on his early retirement. "What happened to them truly frightened me. To see the tragedy and know these people and like them and see how it affects their lives, and to be on the field when it happens... I don't know. That's almost enough to make you want to quit right there."

Further reading:

Utley's injury laid foundation of new life

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