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A Play That Won't Go Away : NFL: Rams' Rocker can't escape 1991 incident that left the Lions' Utley confined to a wheelchair.

August 18, 1993|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — Mike Utley and David Rocker, two men forever entwined in football history because of a painful experience.

One man's suffering has been apparent; the other is trapped in private contemplation.

"I've watched the play on tape several times," Rocker said. "When I see that play it comes back to me each and every time like it was just yesterday."

It was a play like any other in a football game. Rocker, a Ram defensive lineman, rushed the passer. Utley, a Lion offensive guard, tried to stop him. Rocker leaped to knock down Erik Kramer's pass. Utley pushed forward, stumbled and fell. Rocker fell atop him.

"I knew something was strange right away," Rocker said. "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.'

"I remember just sitting and watching. I was not talking to anybody because I didn't know anybody. I'd only been with the Rams a few days and I didn't know the guys on my own team.

"It was all so strange--the whole year. I was getting released in Houston a couple of days before the regular season starts, 10 weeks later I was in a totally different uniform, and the first time I ever play in an NFL game I was in this type of situation. My head was spinning."

A stretcher was rolled onto the field, Utley was carried out, the game continued.

"I was on the plane home and it was the first time I heard someone say he might be paralyzed. I was thinking, 'He's probably a little numb and tomorrow I'm going to read in the paper how he's normal again.'

"I watched ESPN and the play was being shown and it began to sink in. 'This is really serious.' Everybody wanted to talk to me, but I didn't want to make it a big issue and become some sort of villain. I agree to one interview with ESPN. I didn't want to talk to anyone else. I just wanted to drop it."

But it will not go away. "It will always be there," Rocker said.

It will be two years in November, and for both men the rehabilitation continues. Utley remains confined to a wheelchair.

"David's not the same person," said Erica Rocker, his wife. "We're talking dramatic change--night and day.

"You have to understand what he went through that year, how he poured his heart and soul into football, and then it all went bad."

David Rocker, strong and successful, a big-time performer for Auburn. Football was everything while he was growing up. It was a family thing. His brother, Tracy, an Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner at Auburn, played for the Washington Redskins.

"Ever since I was a kid my goal was to play professional football. Everything about me was football. If it had anything to do with football, I could fix it.

"I was drafted by Houston, I started in the exhibition games and two days before the regular-season opener I got a call telling me I was cut. Sean Jones signed a contract and they needed to make room for him.

"Just like that you find out you're expendable. They smile in your face and then they tell you to leave. The next thing I know I'm with the Rams, it's the Utley thing and everything is Mike Utley, Mike Utley, Mike Utley.

"Everything was so good in college and I expected that in the pros. But then everything was beginning to crumble. I walked away from one punch only to take another. The Utley thing . . . It was like someone takes a picture of a bank robbery and you're standing right there in the background. Just by you being in that picture people want to know everything--who wants that on their head.

"After all I had been through that year, now I was labeled as the guy in that situation. I don't know, you have a ton of weight on your back, then someone adds a pound and you can't tell the difference. It just loads you down.

"After what I went through in Houston I didn't want to get close to anyone. So when I came to the Rams I didn't want to have any friends. I stayed very much to myself, but then I would go home at night and I would have no one to talk with. It was terrible."

The 1991 season ended. "And emotionally, David was really a wreck," Erica said.

Erica and David began spending more time together. They were not married yet, and Erica spent Wednesdays and Fridays at Bible study.

"I wanted to go to the movies, she wanted to go to Bible study," Rocker said. "You got to be crazy; me, go to Bible study?

"Two years ago I'm not an alcoholic, but I'm the type of guy who's out with the fellas having a few beers, hitting the clubs and hoping I can sleep off whatever happened the next day."

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