Thursday, July 23, 2009
I first met Mike Utley in the summer of 1988. It was one of those meetings between a "celebrity" and a fan, where the celebrity is completely oblivious - but the fan remembers it for the rest of their life. It's not that he was rude to me or anything like that - we were just in completely different places in life at that time. I was an incoming freshman, attending WSU new student orientation and Mike was a senior All-American offensive lineman.
Mike's sister Theresa, was my student counselor that week and she invited him to have lunch with us one day. Seeing him dashed any lingering thoughts I had about walking on to the football team. Simply put - he was the largest human I had ever seen. I became an instant fan.
I followed Mike's NFL career with great interest and was shocked and horrified when I found out he'd been paralyzed in a game during the 1991 season. It wasn't long after his accident that my cousin suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed as well. Utley's story served as inspiration then and we helped the cause by purchasing his original "Thumb's Up" t-shirts.
Since his injury, Mike has dedicated his life to helping people live with spinal cord injuries and ultimately, to help find a cure for paralysis. His story is truly inspiring. Just a year after his injury, The Mike Utley Foundation was established to provide financial support for select research, rehabilitation and education for those living with spinal cord injuries (SCI.) Mike’s philosophy concerning SCI is that although everyone does not have the same level of injury, financial, social or career opportunities, he believes in the positive influence of setting, moving towards and reaching individual goals that provide solid foundations for building self esteem.
The Mike Utley Foundation financially supports innovative research, rehabilitation, education, patient equipment and housing for those living with SCI. Recent accomplishments are: in 2007 the Foundation awarded $110,000.00 to Craig Hospital in Englewood, CO. for the Mike Utley Terrain Park. This unique outdoor training park will help hundreds of patients each year who are learning how to walk or control a wheelchair in a variety of outdoor terrains. In 2008 the Foundation awarded $68,761.20 in grants for a Terrain Park at the Shepherd Center, SCI research at Washington State University, equipment and therapeutic recreation at Craig Hospital and rehabilitation scholarships at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan.
Last August, my Mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. Looking for ways to keep her spirits up after surgery to remove the tumor from her brain, I contacted the foundation to see if Mike would be willing to call or write with some words of encouragement. Mike's wife Dani got right back to me and said that he would be happy to help. At 9AM on the Monday morning after my Mom returned home from the hospital, she received a phone call from Mike. She was so excited to hear from him and even more surprised when an autographed picture of Mike, in his Detroit Lions uniform, arrived in the mail a couple days later. Her recovery from surgery was not easy but Mom had a goal to make it to Pullman for the Apple Cup. At the game, she finally got to meet Mike and Dani to thank them in-person. True to form, the Utleys invited her to sit with them for the game.
Needless to say, Mike Utley is one of my heroes. I'm very excited to be able to give something back to the Utleys with my participation in the 2009 Dam2Dam "Thumb's Up" Bike Tour. This is the premiere fundraiser for the foundation, drawing over 1000 riders of all abilities from around the country.
I have known about the ride for a couple years and considered participating but frankly, I'd been too lazy. After my personal experience with Mike and Dani last fall, I decided it was time to get off my butt and do it.
I was probably in the worst shape of my life in the winter of 2007 but was shedding pounds through the summer of 2008 with better eating habits and lots of yardwork. When we got news of my Mom's situation in August, everything went to hell and my weight ballooned up to about 290 lbs. I was miserable.
In November, I started going to the gym 3-5 times a week and set another goal for myself to participate in Spokane's Bloomsday. I didn't run the whole way, but I beat my goal - and shortly thereafter, started training for the Thumb's Up Bike Tour. From the end of May through the end of June, I rode a total of 124 miles. After taking most of the first part of July off for work and vacation, my goal is to ride 150 miles over the last 10 days of the month. (With my in-laws set to arrive for a week tomorrow, that shouldn't be a problem.)
The 2009 bike tour will be held on September 26th. The bike tour consists of a 25, 50 or 100-mile ride along the Columbia River route near Wenatchee. The tour is ideal for the recreational rider as well as the professional cyclist. Accommodations are also available for disabled riders. The 2008 ride attracted 32 disabled hand-cyclists from throughout the US.
Support vehicles, EMS, County Sheriffs and SAG wagons are provided for the convenience and safety of the riders. Rest stations providing drinks, snacks, fruit and water are located intermittently along the route. All registered riders receive a DAM2DAM “Thumbs Up!” TYVEK jacket, goodie bag, refreshments at the rest stops and a bikers BBQ at the end of the ride. Prizes are awarded to participants collecting the top donations in their cycling category and may qualify for a special award for top overall contributor.
I'll be riding at least 50 miles this year with 100 still a possibility if I can train hard enough. If you'd like to participate this year, you can register here.
If you can't participate in the ride, please consider supporting my effort with a tax-deductible donation to Mike's foundation. My goal is to raise a minimum of $2500 and every little bit helps! Donations can be made here. Thanks for your support.
Thumb's Up and Go Cougs!