Imagine sitting at a table with your family, and they’re talking about something that happened five, 10 years ago that everybody there remembers. And you’re kind of scratching your head quietly, going, ”Wow, I really have no idea. I honestly can’t place myself there; I can’t think of it.”
That memory loss is what ultimately convinced NFL player and Super Bowl champion Ben Utecht to retire from the game.
Over the course of his collegiate and professional careers, the tight end experienced five concussions, the last two being so serious that his cognitive and memory abilities were affected.
Utecht describes himself as a “Minnesotan through and through.” He was born in the state, spent his college years at the University of Minnesota and returned here after his career in the NFL.
As a minister’s kid, his family moved around the state several times growing up, but it was in Hastings where his athletic talent—and music abilities—were on display.
Utecht’s first inclination that he had some football ability happened in the fourth grade while the family lived in Lindstrom. It was the first time he had played football, but he soon discovered that he had a knack for the game.
“I was playing defensive end, and I figured out at that young age that if I just lined up in the gap and ran right through it, they weren’t going to stop you,” he said. “I remember this one play where the quarterback took the handoff, and I was through so fast that he had no time to do anything.”
The summer after his junior year, he enrolled at a football camp run by then-coach Glen Mason of the Gophers. After the camp, Mason invited Utecht and his father to his office, where Mason proceeded to ask Utecht for a verbal commitment to the Gophers and offered him a scholarship.
“I always knew that I wanted to be a Gopher,” Utecht said. “I stayed pretty true to the things that I hold as a priority: family, faith and the idea of growing up in Minnesota and staying. No matter where the team was at, I thought it could be a really special thing. It really turned out to be. We turned the program around—went to four bowl games. My senior year was a 10-3 season.”
Yet after four years of a successful career at the University of Minnesota, Utecht found his NFL prospects looking dim. He suffered a serious abdominal injury during his senior year of college, and his draft position went from a projected first round pick to not getting drafted at all.
But Utecht describes a “miracle story” that took place at the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of Minnesota campus. He was a speaker at an event being held at the Center, as was Tony Dungy, former Gopher and coach of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts at the time.
“I got up to share before [Dungy] did, and the first thing I said in front of all these people at the McNamara Center was, ‘Hey, Coach, us Gophers we stick together. So I expect you to draft me in the upcoming draft.’ Everybody got a kick out of it.”
Apparently, so did Dungy.
“He was gracious enough to acknowledge my joke when he gave his keynote,” Utecht recalled. “He said, ‘You know, Ben, we’d love to have you. Unfortunately, we drafted a tight end last year in the first round—Dallas Clark—so we’re not really going to be making tight ends a priority this year.’
“Then he paused as if he was being downloaded something—like he was thinking. Then he said, ‘But I’ll make a promise to you right now. If for some reason you slip through the cracks, which I don’t think you will, but if you do, I’ll be the first person to call.’”
Months later, Utecht had slipped through the draft and was sitting in his agent’s office one day when the phone rang.
“My agent picks it up and hands it to me,” Utecht remembered. “Who do you think it was? It was Tony Dungy. Are you kidding me? What he promised came back into my mind. I just kind of sat there in awe.”
Dungy told Utecht that the team wanted to send him to doctors who specialized in the type of injury Utecht suffered. Dungy told him not to worry about playing that first year—just rest and recover. The team paid him as if he were a playing rookie and also offered Utecht a small signing bonus.
“The miracle is that three years later, I am one of the starting tight ends on a Super Bowl championship team,” Utecht said.
Utecht went on to play several seasons in the NFL, first with the Colts and then briefly for the Cincinnati Bengals. However, his football career came to a crossroads after concussions began to take their toll.
“The first documented concussion was as a Gopher,” Utecht recalled. It came against Baylor. “I got knocked out. I ran into an offensive lineman on a blocking play. I just remember coming to on the field, and [I] had a bloody nose. They removed me from the remainder of that game. But I was back on the practice field just a couple of days later.”
Utecht began to experience noticeable side effects after his fourth documented concussion.
“The first time that I really felt amnesia was after my fourth documented concussion,” he said. “It was an interesting concussion because a Denver Bronco defensive lineman was jumping over me. I only know this because I watched it on film. I had ended up on the ground trying to block somebody, and he tried to jump over me. As he jumped over me, the toe of his cleat just clipped the back of my helmet. It looked like nothing on camera. You kind of saw my head bob down a little bit, and then my entire body went limp and I just was out.”
A few teammates walked over to Utecht and stood over him as he came back to consciousness. He then sprinted off the field and talked with trainers and coaches.
“That happened halfway through the first quarter, and I remember nothing until going in at halftime,” he said. “I couldn’t even tell you what was happening at halftime right now. It’s a weird thing to watch 40-60 minutes of your life on tape that you’ll never have. It’s a scary thing.”
After that concussion, things would never be the same again for Utecht. His wife, Karyn, began to notice changes in him.
Yet even in spite of the seeming seriousness of the concussions, Utecht said concussions were not yet becoming a major focus of the NFL—something that has drastically changed in the last five years.
“I didn’t really realize that this was a brain injury,” Utecht said. “I know that that sounds really naïve, and it is. But that is the truth. You hear the word concussion and you know that you dinged your head but you don’t, at least I didn’t, actually realize that it can actually change your brain—have an effect on your brain.”
Utecht would end up suffering one more concussion that would end his days in the NFL. It occurred during training camp, and Utecht had to be strapped to a board and brought to the hospital.
“We just started a family,” Utecht said about the time frame of this last concussion. “When the career-ending concussion happened in training camp in 2009, my oldest daughter, Elleora, had just been born back in March. That really changes everything. On top of that, I don’t really know how to describe what amnesia feels like or beyond that, when memories just kind of are gone.”
By 2009, concussions were beginning to receive national attention, and the NFL began to feel pressure from its players and others to spotlight the injury and devote resources to its prevention and treatment.
Since then, hundreds of current and former NFL players have talked about the impact of concussions on their lives and several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of players—seeking damages from the NFL.
After this final concussion, Utecht underwent an eight-month rehabilitation process before being cleared to play again. In the meantime, the NFL had instituted a waiver for players with concussion histories to sign in order to protect teams from responsibility for further brain injuries.
Utecht had one final tryout with the New England Patriots.
“I could tell in the tryout with the Patriots that their doctors … there was definitely concern over my concussion history and what went down,” he said. “It was kind of a combination of realizing it was going to be really difficult for me to find a team that would now take me with how this injury was being spotlighted, number one. And number two, if a team did want me and they asked me to sign this waiver, I wouldn’t do it.”
With all these factors in mind, Utecht made the decision to retire from football.
Symptoms and advocacy
Now with the decision to retire behind him, Utecht faces another test—this one just as formidable as becoming a professional athlete.
Along with his family, Utecht is praying that the concussion-related symptoms he experiences today have not damaged his brain permanently.
In addition to memory loss, Utecht experiences several other effects.
“It’s difficult sometimes to get out what I’m trying to say,” he said. “Sometimes it kind of feels like I’m walking in mental quicksand. Sometimes you would notice it, sometimes you wouldn’t notice it. If you really know me … like my wife can notice it. In my mind, it feels like I know what I want to say, but it’s like I have to wait for it to come out. Sometimes it gets so frustrating for me that I just kind of lose my complete train of thought.”
Utecht is encouraged, however, by the amount of attention and research currently being devoted to brain injuries. Research has demonstrated that the brain has the ability to heal on its own and “create new neuro-pathways to bring out information,” he said.
In addition, Utecht said cognitive rehabilitation is demonstrating that through exercises, the brain can develop new ways to retrieve information and new ways to approach memorization.
Utecht has also begun to speak out on brain injuries and concussions. In particular, he has spoken out about the need for more education and training in concussion prevention and care.
“If I could wave a magic wand over the concussion crisis and change something, it would be that every parent is trained in the detection and prevention of concussions,” he said. “That not only the trainer but the mom and the dad can actually be there and because they have been trained, because they [have been educated] on what a concussion is and what to look for, they can be the ones to help assess. Then the most important part of that is connecting them to a neurologist, a brain expert.”
Utecht recently received the 2014 Public Leadership in Neurology award from the American Academy of Neurology and American Brain Foundation.
“The professional heartbreak and challenges he has overcome resonates with others and increases awareness of the need to support research to help patients living with brain disease, especially those with sports concussion,” said Catherine M. Rydell, CAE, executive director/CEO of the American Academy of Neurology and American Brain Foundation. “Ben was a natural choice to take on a national spokesperson role for the American Academy of Neurology and our foundation, the American Brain Foundation.”
Going from retired NFL player to spokesman for leading brain injury organizations has made Utecht wonder about God’s leading in this process.
“Everything in the world of neurology and brain health for me has been something that has just really been brought to me,” he said. “From a providential standpoint, [it] always makes me stop and think, ‘OK, are you trying to tell me something here? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?’”
Apparently it is.
Music and the future
Ever since he was a kid, music has played a prominent role in Utecht’s life. His parents were musical and in high school, Utecht said he was involved in more choirs than sports. His desire to sing followed him to college and into the NFL, where he received mentoring that planted a seed in his heart that music could be something to pursue after the NFL.
He recently finished his fourth album, which includes the single “You Will Always Be My Girls,” a song about what life might be like for him and his family if he loses his memory. The song, which essentially serves as a love letter to his wife and girls, already has more than 575,000 views on YouTube.
Utecht’s producer and songwriting partner called him one day and said, “I think I know the song that we’re missing,” referencing the work on this latest CD. “You’re not going to like this. Have you ever written a letter to your wife and girls in case you begin to lose your memory of them?”
Utecht had thought about this exact scenario but had yet to put words to paper.
“Here I am on this plane 30,000 feet above the [ground] writing this love letter on my iPad to my wife and the girls from the perspective of the guy who has dementia and doesn’t recognize them anymore,” he said.
It was an emotional experience for him to write the song—hoping and praying the man in the song and video isn’t actually him in five, 10 or 20 years. But the video also struck a chord with many others, and will hopefully provide a boost in efforts to fund research that will prevent people from serious effects from concussions.
For Utecht, that means the man described in the song and shown on the video is not actually him several years from now.
Learn more at www.ben-utecht.com.
— by Scott Noble