When I was a kid growing up in the early 1990s, my weekends were divided into two distinct days, and both of them revolved around football.
Saturdays were for watching Michigan beat up on whatever hapless Big Ten team crossed their path (Ohio State included), and Sundays were for watching any number of high-octane Detroit Lions teams that always seemed to play their best football at the end of the season under head coach Wayne Fontes.
Fontes’ specialties included A) stacking the team with mercurial offensive talents like Barry Sanders, Herman Moore and Brett Perriman, B) capturing the attention of the local sports media, who saw him as a charismatic, good natured father figure, and C) staging dramatic late-season comebacks after the Lions had already navigated themselves toward the brink of disaster.
The 1991 Detroit Lions were different, however; a contender from the get-go.
The Lions reeled off wins in five of their first six games before hitting mid-season turbulence with losses to San Francisco, Chicago; and in true Lions fashion, a putrid 1-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers team led by QB Vinny Testaverde and RB Reggie Cobb.
The embarrassing loss set the stage for what would be the defining game of the Lions season: a November 17 matchup with the Los Angeles Rams at the Pontiac Silverdome.
The 3-7 Rams, led by QB Jim Everett and DE Kevin Greene, were far from a top tier opponent, but the game offered up the most challenging moment of the entire ’91 season as starting guard Mike Utley suffered a catastrophic injury to two of his cervical vertebrae.
The injury left Utley paralyzed from the waist down and ended his career.
Utley gave his iconic “thumbs up” gesture to the sellout Pontiac Silverdome crowd as he was carted off the field, and it would become a rallying cry for the rest of the season.
Utley’s contributions to the team were highlighted in a must-watch 1991 documentary film titled ‘Thumbs Up.’
“The Detroit Lions salute teammate Mike Utley, whose courage and strength provided incredible inspiration during the 1991 season,” the intro to the film reads.
“And whose continued perseverance and will serve as an inspiration to all.”
Utley himself is also quoted.
“I’d like to thank all of the people all over the country, especially Detroit, for all of the cards and positive notes they have sent me,” Utley says.
Watch the 1991 Lions Documentary Film: ‘Thumbs Up: The Story of the 1991 Detroit Lions:’
Utley’s Tragic Injury Galvanized the Lions Toward First Playoff Win in Decades
Watching the Lions’ heroics unfold was an inspiration, their perseverance in the face of tough times reminding us all of the lessons, and excitement, professional sports instills in all who follow.
As the Lions continued on without Utley, an entire city grappled with his injury, and the questions that followed.
“I had a friend of mine that said, one day God will reveal why he let this happen, and I just know that some day, some good will come out of it,” Utley later said.
The Lions went on to defeat the Rams by a final score of 21-10 after Utley’s injury, setting the stage for a historically great finish to the season during which Fontes’ Lions rattled off six straight wins, en route to securing a 12-4 record, the number two seed in the NFC Playoffs and a first round bye in the playoffs.
On January 5th, 1992, Detroit took on a star-studded young Cowboys team led by Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and a third-year Troy Aikman as the backup quarterback.
Defensive end Marc Spindler recalled the scene in an interview snippet published by the Detroit Free Press.
“We came out of that tunnel, and I think there had to be over 85,000 at that game. I don’t know what the record would state, but you couldn’t hear yourself think. That had to be the loudest game I’d ever played in. And you knew it was a big atmosphere, you just knew it was a big game,” he said.
As the Cowboys stacked the box to stop Sanders from beating them, the Lions took to the skies with reckless abandon.
Backup quarterback Erik Kramer stole the show, shocking the football world with an all-time great performance in the playoffs.
Kramer threw for 341 yards and three TD’s in front of a Pontiac Silverdome crowd of 78,290, which still stands as the franchise’s only playoff win since the 1957 NFL Championship team.
Check out the Lions’ 1991 over the Cowboys in this vintage ESPN footage featuring a young(er) Chris Berman, Joe Theismann and Tom Jackson (click on the picture to see the video).
Forgotten Sports Heroes of the 1991 Detroit Lions
Aside from Utley and the inspiration he provided, the Detroit Lions were loaded with All-Pro caliber talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Detroit finished 9th in the league in total offense and 10th in rushing offense, despite a below average passing game that suffered the loss of starting QB Rodney Peete due to injury in the 9th game of the season, a 34-10 win against Dallas.
At running back, Barry Sanders turned in one of his characteristically brilliant and most productive seasons, racking up 1548 yards and 16 touchdowns on 4.5 yards per carry, a half-yard less than his top ten all-time rate of 5.0 (a list paced by several QBs including Michael Vick).
The 1991 Lions boasted four first team NFL All-Pros: Sanders, kick returner Mel Gray, nose tackle Jerry Ball, and middle linebacker Chris Spielman.
Left tackle Lomas Brown and free safety Bennie Blades also made the second team, a testament to the balanced lineup of one of the franchise’s all-time great teams.
It is, without a doubt, a collection of football greats that will never be forgotten in the Motor City.
Forgotten Sports Heroes is a website dedicated to reliving the most exciting, inspiring and memorable moments in recent sports history. Check us out on Facebook by clicking here.