Ben Utecht and Rhys Lloyd, friends since both were on the University of Minnesota football team, were chatting about a surprise party that Utecht’s wife threw for his 30th birthday. After the party, the Utechts and the Lloyds had spent three days relaxing in a cabin.
Lloyd had fond memories of that weekend.
Utecht had no memories at all.
“My heart sank into my stomach,” Lloyd said from Florida, where the former Gophers kicker is the director of coaching at a soccer academy. “Here was my best friend — the best man at my wedding — and he couldn’t remember a thing. … It scared me.”
Utecht, a star at the U who played for the Indianapolis Colts team that won the Super Bowl in 2007, suffered multiple concussions during his playing career.
Those concussions are eating away at his memory, but he’s fighting back by taking part in a rigorous, innovative treatment that could stem that loss. Still, as the father of four daughters under age 8, he’s worried that when they’ll need his advice, he won’t be able to remember what to tell them. Or worse — he might not even remember them.
When he was first diagnosed with concussion-related memory issues, he wrote a letter to his wife and kids.
“I’m afraid to forget you, to wake up and open my eyes and not know you anymore, to be unable to recognize the greatest loves of my life by face or name,” he wrote.
When he parlayed a lifelong interest in music into a singing career, he expounded on those thoughts in a song titled “You Will Always Be My Girls.” The lyrics include: “I’ll hold on as long as I can to you.”
Now he’s written a book, “Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away: A Love Letter to My Family.” It covers everything he’d like his kids to know about him, from his philosophy (“I refuse to give up”) to his Christianity (“Knowing there’s something bigger than myself is very important”) to his perspective on love.
“I’m a hopeless romantic,” he said, admitting that he went to see “The Notebook” of his own volition — and liked it.
Like that tear-jerker, Utecht’s story would seem to have all the makings of a four-handkerchief sob story. But he sees it as just the opposite: an inspiring account of a comeback in the making that would top anything on a football field.
“I really want this to be a book of hope,” he said.
The hope is pinned on a brain-training program he has undertaken. It’s based on the theory that through an extensive regimen of memory exercises — 2½ hours a day, four days a week spent memorizing lists of random words and numbers and then reciting them — damaged brains can generate new neurological pathways to replace those that no longer function.
So far, for Utecht, it’s working.
“I’ve been lifted out of my mental fog,” Utecht said. “A year ago, I’d lose myself in the middle of a sentence. I’d be talking and I suddenly couldn’t remember the words. That has completely gone away.”
His wife, Karyn, agreed. “It’s been amazing,” she said of the change she’s seen in him. “It’s been really inspiring to watch.”
The memories that have disappeared are gone forever, but new ones appear to be sticking. It will take time to see if older memories continue to fade or if the losses have been stabilized, and, he admits, it’s impossible for him “not to be afraid of what the future might hold.” But at the same time, he’s optimistic.
“Now I’m even reminding Karyn of things,” he said with a smile.
Shaking it off
Utecht, 35, doesn’t know for sure how many concussions he has had. That’s not a memory issue; it’s a machismo issue.
Five were diagnosed, but the focus on concussions surfaced only at the end of his career. Starting in junior high, there were numerous times when he experienced what football players refer to as “getting your bell rung” — a hit to the head that leaves a player groggy. He realizes now that most — if not all of them — probably were concussions.
These days, players in any contact sport who show signs of confusion are banned from playing until they pass a concussion assessment. But back then, players were expected to “shake it off” and get right back in the action.
Utecht was no different. In 2007, he suffered a concussion in a game against the Denver Broncos. He sat out one game, but then he felt fine, and he suited up again.
“We expected that he’d bounce back,” Karyn Utecht said. “That was our mentality.”
In 2008, he left the Colts for a lucrative offer from the Cincinnati Bengals. During training camp the following year, he suffered his fifth concussion, his worst one yet. It took nine months to recover, and, as a result, he missed the entire NFL season. The Bengals cut him to avoid having to pay him nearly $1 million in salary. (He sued and eventually collected.)
The next fall, he got a call from his agent saying that a couple of teams were wondering if he was available. He told his wife that he was considering the offers. Even though she didn’t yet know the seriousness of suffering multiple concussions, she was hesitant, but she understood. She has a strong competitive streak of her own — when they met at the U, she was Karyn Stordahl, captain of the golf team, and they delayed their wedding for two years so she could compete in the Miss Minnesota pageant, which she won.
“I didn’t want him to do anything risky, of course, but I know how hard it is for an athlete to walk away knowing you have a little bit more in you,” she said.
Then he talked to his parents. His mother, Lori, had never made peace with the violence of the game. When he fractured a hip during a high school game, she ran out on the field to check on him.
“My mom ran the fastest 40-yard dash in the history of Hastings High,” he said. “She reached me on the field before the coaches or trainers got there.”
It was his father who made their response clear: Ben was free to make his own decision, but his parents, who had traveled countless miles over the years to attend his games, were not going to watch him get hurt again.
“That was a real jolt,” Utecht said.
But not an impromptu one, the Rev. Jeff Utecht said.
“We’d talked about it for a year,” said the elder Utecht, who serves at Coon Rapids United Methodist Church. “We’d decided that if he ever asked us what do to, we weren’t going to support his playing again. And I think that deep in his heart, he knew that was the right answer.”
Setting new goals
Despite all the problems football has caused him, Utecht still loves the sport.
“I think it’s a wonderful game,” he said. “I’m not anti-football at all. I watch all the Vikings games, and I have season tickets to the Gophers.”
His passion for singing remains, too. When he retired from football, he moved to Nashville with a dream of becoming “the next Josh Groban, only to discover that one Groban is enough.”
He recorded several CDs, including a 2012 Christmas album that was nominated for a Dove Award, gospel music’s version of a Grammy. But wanting to get their kids closer to both sets of grandparents, the Utechts returned to the Twin Cities.
He continued performing. Last year, he and local singer Mick Sterling put together a holiday revue, “An Andy and Bing Christmas” (as in Andy Williams and Bing Crosby). They’ve been booked for 16 shows this year, with the possibility of more being added.
But returning to Minnesota made Utecht acutely aware of his memory problems.
“Everything in Cincinnati and then Nashville was new, so I had no memories of it,” he said. But back in his home state — which he calls “the land of memories” — it quickly became evident that “a lot of memories weren’t there.”
When he heard about brain-training exercises being offered by LearningRX, he jumped at the opportunity to try.
The results have been so impressive that he serves as a spokesman for the American Academy of Neurology medical society. He also has launched a career as an inspirational speaker.
But he doesn’t pretend that more challenges, perhaps even bigger ones, might still arise.
“You have a choice how you react at a time of challenge,” he said. “You can’t just let the challenge beat you. You redefine yourself through the challenge.”
While he closely follows the news about former football players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that has been linked to the suicide of Junior Seau (and can be diagnosed only after death), he refuses to obsess about it. He has other things to focus on, starting with his family.
“I appreciate the time I have with my family much more now. It made me realize how valuable every moment I have with them is, because every moment is a memory.”