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Former NFL Players on the Injuries that Ended Their Careers

Jermichael Finley, Mike Utley, and Tony Boselli tell VICE Sports about the afternoon their careers came to an end, and the new life they were forced to start building the following day.
Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

NFL players must get used to living on borrowed time. Careers can be permanently altered on a goofy tackle or a bad patch of turf. Every time a receiver stretches out for a compromising ball, they're risking everything. In other sports we're used to long-term degenerative injuries slowly sapping the effectiveness of formerly great players. But even Joakim Noah, with his plantar fasciitis and lingering hamstring issues, can still splash a $72 million contract from the New York Knicks. Football is unique. It's the only sport with a long list of names (Priest Holmes, Mack Strong, Joe Theismann) who've been erased from rosters in a single weird, one-in-a-million moment.


The following interviews are with NFL pros who've been forced to retire due to injury. We talked to them about the afternoon their careers came to an end, and the new life they were forced to start building the following day.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Jermichael Finley

Jermichael Finley played tight end for five years for the Green Bay Packers. He retired in 2013 after suffering a spinal cord injury. He's 29 years old.

VICE Sports: First things first, walk us through the play you were injured on. What do you remember?

Jermichael Finley: There was about four minutes left on the clock. I was spread out wide, it was a routine play and a routine hit. I've taken that hit a thousand times. So I went on a slant route, I caught the ball, and I looked at the guy and I felt like I could see the hit coming already. In my head I was like, Damn, I'm about to get hurt here. It was the weirdest thing ever. A few weeks before against the Bengals I had taken a hit and I already felt kinda injured in the back area. But this wasn't a hard hit at all, it wasn't a big guy at all, but when he hit me I swear to god it felt like a hundred bees stinging me.

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So I'm laying on the ground and I'm feeling my arms spreading farther and farther apart, and I'm telling myself, "Close your arms," but they were going all over the place because I was temporarily paralyzed. My legs were crossing over each other, my toes were dorsel flexing, and in my head I'm like, I can't do nothing.


The trainers ran out to the field and I was talking to them… it was weird, I was talking to them but I couldn't breathe. I was lip talking, whatever you want to call it. The guys were like, "Are you OK? Are you OK?" and I was like, "Nah man, I'm not OK." We went to the hospital, they cut off my pads, took off my helmet, and I was laying on the table just like, What is going on here?

At that moment, were you worried about the future of your career or were you just worried about your body and how serious the damage was?

That's one of the things I asked as I was being carted off the field: "Will I be able to play football again?" And they said that's the last thing I need to worry about right now. And I was like, "No, answer my question. Will I be able to play football again?" And they said, "From what we know right now, probably not," and that's what really broke me down. I mean, this game I've been playing since I was five years old.

What really killed me was when my son was in the hospital room that night and he said to me, "Dad, I don't want you to ever play football again." He was five years old at the time. Hearing that from your five-year-old is hard to take.

What was the rehab process like? How long were you in the hospital?

I was in the hospital for a week, not being able to move. My movement started coming back gradually, once I got out I started the rehab process to get back into the NFL. It broke me down, man. It was a process I will never, ever forget. I was going 24/7. I was doing full workouts, every kind of work out, I was doing everything in my power to get my health back. I got cleared by my doctors, and I visited the Seahawks, I visited New England, and I had these X-rays that said I was healthy. But once I did their tests, the tests said that I wasn't healthy at all.


I imagine that was pretty hard to take, considering how hard you worked to get back.

It was a very tough pill to swallow. I had the Seahawks GM tell me that I wasn't healthy, and that he would never jeopardize my career, or my health. So he told me that, and it was a tough ride back from Seattle.

People always talk about the NFL like it's a business, and it is a business, but after suffering a career-ending injury, did you get a lot of sympathy from the Packers organization and the rest of the league? Or was it still kind of clinical?

There was sympathy, but the NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. Nobody really contacts me now. I don't hear from anyone from the Packers. It's one of the things that I don't respect about the NFL, just because I was a guy who was always intense, I came into practice everyday, so for them to not contact me after my career is over? That bothers me.

The Packers obviously have been struggling offensively this year. When you're watching the league, do you ever get jitters of wanting to be back out there?

It's one of the toughest things to deal with. I'm 29 years old, and to see my guys out there battling and going to war but coming up short or not playing to their full potential, it's tough. Especially at tight end. I haven't seen a tight end come through ever since. It's just one of the things I have to deal with and move on.

Finley getting tackled in his last game as a NFL player. Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of football, what things have you gotten involved with since your injury? Are you doing anything business-wise?


Absolutely, now I live in a little town called Aledo, Texas. I've invested into a gym, and I'm coaching my little kid. I get to spend time with that, because in the NFL you had no time. So I'm spending time with my kids, my family, enjoying life, and seizing the moment.

You do sound very much at peace. When were you able to move on from football?

Recently, man. It might sound a little crazy, but I went out to meditate, and they had people talking to me, calming me down. Like I said man, it's a hard pill to swallow. I'm 29 years old. I had a great career, I had a great run at it, and I came out successful. But I've been thinking, this is when most people start their actual careers. That's what I'm working on now. Maybe I'll be an intern and start building from there.

You obviously had at least four or five years left in your career when you got injured. Financially was there any stress when you were released, or were things OK?

Things were pretty good, man. I had an insurance policy taken out on my body. I went low the first time I ever signed one in '09. It wasn't much money, but it just so happens in 2013 I re-upped for the maximum amount—right before I had a career-ending injury. I think God had my back on that one.

Mike Utley

Mike Utley played guard three years for the Detroit Lions from 1989 until 1991, when he was paralyzed on the field. Today, he's 51 and has full use of his upper extremities.

I'm sure you've done this a million times, but could you walk me through the play you were injured?


Mike Utley: It was the 11th game of the year, the Detroit Lions against the Los Angeles Rams. We were a well-groomed team that worked together. It was the first play of the fourth quarter, and we're running a pass play. My opponent went to raise his hands up and I went to take his legs out. He caught me by the shoulders and pulled me down, and I hit my head on the turf. It happens all the time, and I just got caught.

When people ask me about this—this is the honest truth—it was just one of those things. It shouldn't have happened, but it did.

So you're lying there on the field, you get carted off. Tell me about the rest of that day.

I don't remember much, but I do know that when I was being wheeled off, a guy said, "Hey, Mike, we're gonna get this one for you," and I heard the crowd. I gave the thumb's up to acknowledge them, but it was also to send a message to everyone saying, "I will be back." I understand that I won't be back as the pro ball player. I get it. But I will be back.

I also remember when I was getting carried off I was thinking, Dang it, I broke a promise to myself that I would never be carted off the field again. My first year, in 1989, I snapped my right knee and tried to walk off the field myself like three times. My leg was just gone. I've always felt that an athlete walks on the battle and he walks off. That's the emotional side of things that hit me more. I knew I was in trouble, I didn't know how bad, but that was the thing going through my head.


When you got to the hospital, when did you first realize what your situation was and how your life had changed?

It was probably when the doctor team came into my room and told me I would never walk again, and I told them to get the hell out of my room. Don't tell me or anyone that they can't do anything. This is a starting point. From this point on, what do I have to do to get Mike Utley to where he needs be? There's a saying that athletes don't measure success by time, they measure them by goals achieved. That philosophy is one of the strongest motivators to me.

Mike Utley in 1991. Photo by USA TODAY Sports

You retired after only three full years in the league. I'm sure you expected to play longer and make more money. On top of the lifelong injury, did the change of career scare you at all?

Nope, I never played the game for money. Now, I wish I got paid more, but who doesn't, really? For me it was the adrenaline of the game that motivated me, and drove me, and pushed me to the next level. My parents both worked hard, they gave us the ability to stand on our own two feet, and it wasn't a concern about what was going to happen. I was concerned about being the best I could be, no matter where I was. Money was never a stressful thing for me. Never has been. I don't know how to explain it, but it never meant much.

When did you come to an acceptance of your situation? Did you have to find peace?

You just used the word "accept." I don't accept it. I deal with it. Every single day I deal with the bladder and skin issues. There are rules with spinal cord injuries that you cannot break. Understand them, deal with them every single day, and do what you need to do appropriately. If there's a problem, you attack it and you move on. This is the problem with society today, we're giving out ribbons to people for spelling their freaking names. When you've got a nurse with you 24/7 and first thing in the morning she's helping you get up so you can go to the bathroom… this is reality! Suck it up and let's go.


Tell me a little bit about the Mike Utley Foundation. What kind of work do you guys do?

The mission statement is "research, education, rehabilitation." Research number one, because that's gonna get the most people out of the chair. Education, so we can educate the community and the United States as a whole. And rehabilitation, which is a lifestyle about getting your feet on the ground and doing something today that you didn't do yesterday. That grows strength, it brings leadership, and brings you to goal-setting and goal-achieving. Mike Utley has always been productive, I will never be a burden on society. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

Tony Boselli

Tony Boselli was an All-Pro offensive tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars between 1995 and 2001, eventually retiring after an injury to his left shoulder wouldn't go away. He's 44.

When did you first start noticing something wrong with your shoulder, was it a specific play or was it a pile-up of things?

I had a minor shoulder surgery my freshman year of college, but when I got to the pros… I wanna say it was '98, there was this one play where I felt it move a little bit out of the joint, and I just kept on playing with it. I didn't think much of it and figured I'd go out and keep playing hard and figuring out in the off-season.

Do you remember anything else from the play? Was it routine?

Yeah it was a normal play, I don't really remember much else about it, or the game for that matter!


Tony Boselli in 1997. Photo by USA TODAY Sports

So what happened during the off-season?

I played through it, and I had to get my ankle cleaned up after the year so I thought, I'll just rehab my shoulder, no big deal. The following the year it started getting worse, and I kept on playing with it. It was my choice, nobody made me, I didn't want to not play. And after that year I thought, Well, I made it through all 16 games again, I'll just rehab it again. It was the following season where it got bad enough for me to go in for surgery.

Again, I didn't think it would be that big of a deal. Just a quick fix-up, but it turned out to be worse than I thought it was. And… I don't want to talk about this, but I wasn't real happy with the surgery.

Yeah, I remember you mentioned that. If you don't want to comment on it that's fine, but I remember you said in retrospect you regret that surgery. I mean, you look at the facts, you had two surgeries in two months, it seems like there were probably some issues there.

Yeah, the first one I had here in Jacksonville… I probably would've gotten some other opinions of what needed to be done. The shoulder still wasn't responding, so I went to the doctor in Houston after I was sent there for the expansion draft. The doctor there was really good, and he went in multiple times, but at that point the damage had been done.

What was the conversation like when he told you he couldn't do anything else?

In that conversation he just told me how bad it was, and my mindset was just, OK, I'll work on it. So I went to go rehab it some more. I spent that year rehabbing with friends and teammates trying to come back. It wasn't until that off-season one day where I was working out and it just hit me that it was over.


How long did it take you to get over the end of your career and discover what your next steps were going to be?

I'm still not over it. I love the game. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm fine now. But I'd come back tomorrow if I could. I still miss it. I tried a lot of different things trying to figure out what was next, and it was really difficult. I think all guys go through something of an identity crisis. You kinda have to learn what skill sets you have. A lot goes into finding out what your next step is going to be, and personally I wasn't at peace with the last step I just took! It was an interesting time.

Boselli works with the Jaguars today. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

What are you involved in today?

I do a lot of things. I work with the Jaguars, I do their radio on Sundays. I do a radio show on Monday nights and Thursday nights. I also do national radio for Westwood One, and I coach high school football. I also have started a small healthcare company, so I do that too.

Was there any financial strain after you were forced to retire? Were there any worries there?

I mean, I didn't make as much money as I could have (laughs) but I could pay my bills and everything. I was more worried about not being able to play anymore. But did I miss the paychecks? Absolutely! You've got to change your lifestyle, you don't get to keep on living the way you were. I mean, I've got a great life now, it's fine, but anyone who tells you that the money isn't part of what makes being in the NFL great is lying. But that's not what I miss. I don't miss the big paychecks, I miss playing the game.

That's the joke I always tell people when they ask me if I miss playing football. I say, "Absolutely. I miss two days especially: game day and payday." Those are the two best days of the week.

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