Ben Utecht pulled out his iPad and wrote a letter to his wife and three young daughters while cruising on a plane at 30,000 feet. He lowered the brim of his baseball hat to hide the tears streaming down his cheeks.
At the urging of his friend and music producer, Utecht wrote that letter to his girls expressing his love in case he reaches a point someday when he can’t remember them. The damage inflicted on his brain as a former NFL player has caused memory loss and forced Utecht to consider frightening thoughts, such as the notion that he might eventually forget his family.
Atypical behavior for a young man who turns 33 on Monday.
“It was a chance for me to tell my girls that no matter what happens to me and my brain,” he said, “they’re always going to be there.”
Utecht turned that letter into a powerful song entitled “You Will Always Be My Girls.” It’s on an upcoming album as he continues to forge his music career after five diagnosed concussions forced him to retire from football in 2009.
Utecht, a Hastings native, played for the Gophers and a won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts. His soulful voice has opened new doors for him as a singer. The video for his new single can be found on his website (www.ben-utecht.com).
The song reflects Utecht’s new purpose in life. He’s assumed a leading role nationally in this age of concussion awareness.
In recent weeks, Utecht has won a prestigious public leadership award from the American Academy of Neurology and the American Brain Foundation and was named a national spokesperson for those organizations.
He also participated in the White House Concussion Summit, and this week he shared his own story about the effects of brain injury with the Senate Committee on Aging in Washington, D.C.
“It’s really become a mission to help people who are suffering with brain disease,” he said. “I didn’t begin to care about my mind until I began to lose my mind. You don’t really make it a priority until it begins to be affected.”
Myriad lawsuits by former NFL players in recent years have brought increased scrutiny and awareness to concussion and brain injuries. Utecht is a passionate ambassador for this cause.
He’s young, bright and charismatic. He has a beautiful family, a nice home, a great life.
But he also suffers from memory loss, and that scares him. He doesn’t remember singing in a friend’s wedding a few years ago. Sometimes he sits in “mental darkness” as family members recall favorite memories.
“Those are the kinds of things that I pray are not precursors or they don’t get worse,” he said.
Utecht’s final concussion, captured on a HBO’s “Hard Knocks” documentary, forced him to retire after six seasons. He’s experienced common effects from brain trauma, including amnesia, dizziness and sudden mood changes.
Utecht admits that he’s had moments at home when he and his wife, Karyn, will say, whoa, that’s not the normal Ben. Utecht shared with senators on Capitol Hill that his 5-year-old daughter told the family doctor that she’s sometimes afraid of her dad.
“That broke my heart,” he said. “It was a wakeup call.”
Utecht envisions becoming a full-time advocate on this issue. He’s shared his story on “ABC News” and “CBS This Morning” and other media outlets. He’s scheduled to attend a national sports concussion summit in Chicago in a few weeks.
Utecht’s football career gave him a large platform and enough money to enjoy a comfortable life. It also left him with brain trauma and an uncertain future.
“To really think about a time where I may wake up someday and not recognize the person that I’ve been lying next to for the last 30 years, yeah, that’s scary,” he said. “I think every person would fear something like that.”
Utecht can’t undo all the damage to his brain, so he’s focused on rehabilitation and medical research and spreading his message about the importance of neurological awareness. The impact he makes in this realm could far surpass anything he accomplished on a football field.
“If this becomes my mission, I’m prepared,” he said.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org