“Every year at OTAs, at training camp,” Ben Utecht said, “I definitely have memories that really get me to miss the game, for sure.”
That’s good. Memories are especially important to this former Gopher, who won a Super Bowl ring with Peyton Manning’s 2006 Colts before Utecht’s career as a tight end was cut short because of concussions and memory loss.
“Five diagnosed but definitely more,” Utecht said. “I’m dealing with the effects of multiple concussions from playing in the NFL; [suffering] from the long-term effect of them.”
Utecht doesn’t have a lot of confidence the NFL can completely eliminate the mind-numbing hits that enthrall some fans. It would require a re-education campaign for the public. I think it could be done; Utecht is not so sure.
He should help educate NFL fans by writing another song about concussions, which he has already poignantly addressed in “You Will Always Be My Girls,” which went viral on YouTube: http://tinyurl.com/pgxz7vt.
Utecht’s second act has included songwriting, singing and speaking. He started writing songs so that his wife, Karyn, and daughters will have meaningful words by which to remember him if his time in the NFL, from 2003 to 2009, catches up in a bad way.
Utecht is taking 90-minute cognitive skills training four times a week at a Twin Cities Learning Rx “because of some of my memory issues. They are like a personal trainer for the brain.”
I interviewed Utecht when he practiced at Arthur Murray Studios in Edina for the 6th Annual Dancing with the Twin Cities Celebrities Charity Ball. The charity for which he raised money was The American Brain Foundation, which is based in Minneapolis.
Dancing was not foreign to Utecht before he undertook this challenge. “I was in swing choir,” he said enthusiastically. Utecht’s always been a sensitive guy, although he said he knew how to flip the switch on the football field.
The tight pants of a football uni were similar to his dance costume, which also came with a cape. He was Superman, as you can see on my startribune.com/video.
Q: If you were the NFL commissioner what hits would be game ejectors?
A: I think they’ve already put the rules in places; when you lead with your head and when you’re actually striking to injure a person above the shoulders. I think that is definitely move that needs to be a game ejector.
Q: Do you think the NFL is doing enough? Why aren’t players immediately kicked out of the game when that happens? It shouldn’t be just a penalty; players should be gone, salary deducted. Wouldn’t that send a message?
A: I agree with you the NFL needs to continue to do more, and I think the more we learn from the research that they are doing, those answers are going to come but more needs to be done for the brain health of players.
Q: I think the NFL can be exciting without the vicious hits that so many like, where it’s as if you ran a player into a wall. There’s an elegance to tackling.
A: [Laughter] I would say that the majority of America would probably disagree with you. I honestly think that the reason people like the sport, and I’m not saying that I agree with it, is because of its violence. That’s the nature of this game. If you talk to any current NFL performer they’ll tell you can’t change that. So really if you don’t change the violence, how do you change the long-term care for those players? That to me as an advocate is what I care about.
Q: Do you still like the violence of the game?
A: I just don’t think you can escape it. When you put grown men into an arena and put pads on them and give them fair game (with the exception of some rules) to hit each other going full speed, there is going to be violence. We need to make sure, because that’s a part of the game, these players are taking care of properly afterward.
Q: I like those tackles where they take someone down like on the Serengeti or roll them like a crocodile would in the water.
A: Some of those are really exciting, too. Those shoelace tackles, they call them. But the majority of the game, especially between the offensive and defensive lines, there is just so much contact going on at all times. And for the running back. You are running up between players, there is no way you can’t have some of that collision.
Q: I love football, it’s my favorite sport, but I don’t like how body parts known to be injured are targeted. I think it’s wrong when they are trying to crush somebody.
A: Thank you. I agree with you there because if I have been an advocate for anything with concussions or brain health it’s about changing the nature of game, the nature of coaching and the player. You’re not out there to hurt people. You are out there to play a fun and exciting game, to insure that people stay healthy. It’s not about injuries. When we tackle let’s tackle hard, let’s tackle properly. Let’s not tackle to injure, to harm.
Q: So you could live with less violence and still find football exciting?
A: I agree specific hits need to be reprimanded. The NFL [has to be] a violent and collision type sport.
Q: Don’t you have to re-educate the public?
A: I agree, that’s what I’m doing.
Q: There’s a kind of unfortunate fraternity forming of former NFL players with memory loss. Have you had an opportunity to talk to, for example, Tony Dorsett?
A: I’ve never had a chance to talk with Tony but in my trips to Washington to speak at Congress and be an advocate with the NFL settlement, I’ve crossed paths with a number of former players including Kevin Turner, one of the leading voices and unfortunately is not doing well with his diagnosis [ALS]. There are a lot of guys who are struggling with this. I think that’s why we have to find a way to ensure the long-term health of the player.
Q: Junior Seau took his life because of these issues, it is believed?
A: That’s what we believe. He was dealing with some depression and they were trying to make connections between multiple concussions and depression. It was just an unfortunate situation, I think it’s well over 10 who have taken their lives.
Q: Has anyone decided there is a connection between Alzheimer’s and head trauma?
A: One of the things you have to realize is that one in six Americans are affected by brain disorder and disease. This disease NFL players are facing, CTE, is thought to be connected in ways to Alzheimer’s or potentially dementia. So really getting people to care about their brains is important. It’s the organ we take for granted the most. We wouldn’t be having this talk if it wasn’t for the miracle of brains. Getting people to care about that is something that has to happen across our country.
Q: Do you do brain exercises?
A: I’m going to shortly be starting a program with a cognitive training facility, here in town at Learning Rx, that basically is the person-to-person form of what those brain games are. I believe that cognitive training is essential to rehabilitation from concussions.
Q: Do you get flipped out these days when you can’t find your keys?
A: Yeah. For me, to be honest with you, it’s the long-term memory gaps. It when I sit down over Christmas with my family and they’re talking about memories that have happened in the last 10-15 years. Sometimes I just sit there quietly and scratch my head, kind of wondering why I can’t place it, can’t remember it at all. I don’t concern them with that. I kind of internalize it. That’s tough. We’re about to have our fourth daughter, I think about that stuff all the time and just pray it doesn’t go where some of these veterans are going.
Q: A fourth daughter? You don’t have to worry about someone playing in the NFL, do you?
A: [Laughter] I escaped the contact football side of things.
Q: Katriel, Amy-Joan, Elleora. What’s this fourth daughter’s name going to be, because I don’t understand Elleora...Katriel? Do you think you’re black?
A: [Sustained laughter] You know what, we’re big about the meaning of a name. Elleora means light of God. Katriel is Hebrew for God is my crown. Amy-Joan is blessed gift from God. Being a faith-based family we wanted our daughters to have names that had some meaning to them.
Q: I give passes to name that are unusual, as long as they have a meaning.
A: [Laughter] Very cool.
Q: A lot of names these days have no meaning.
A: If you saw them, you would fall in love with them.
Q: I know, they’re cute. I’ve seen them. Now are you always writing songs?
A: Always. That’s a diary for me. An opportunity for me to express myself. When I’ve gone through my own oblivion, really with these concussions, being able really get out exactly what I am feeling has been a huge help.
Q: How many songs are in your diary?
A: I have got that cataloged in my songwriter’s pad. I try to always write songs that in some way, shape or form are uplifting, even if they are about dark times. There’s always a way out. That’s the thing that’s been important for me because as we have seen there have been a number of players who have taken their own lives because they didn’t have that hope. How can I be a voice that provides some of that hope and example? That’s what’s important to me.
Q: Were you always a sensitive guy or did your illness make you more sensitive?
A: No, always was sensitive. I grew up a pastor’s son in a very loving family, a nurturing environment. Very blessed in that regard and I think just being a peacemaker, a sensitive guy, was always a part of my nature, especially off the field. Now on the field, you’ve got to flip the switch [laughter]; my personality changed a little bit. I think [being sensitive] helps me be a great father to four girls. I have that sensitive approach with them. I have a great relationship with my daughters and my wife.
Q: What kind of dancer were you before you started coming over to Arthur Murray?
A: Are you kidding, me? Fantastic. I grew up in an entertaining family. I was in swing choir. I was a theater guy. I love dancing. I definitely had rhythm, but coming here into the professional world was totally different. You realize how talented these people are. Just amazing working with Kelly Lyke; been a great teacher. Putting together a cool, fun show. I like surprising people. You’re going to see me dancing in all Spandex.
Q: You’re still in good shape. That’s not going to be horrifying.
A: No. Exactly. I hope not [Laughter].
Q: You know, some of us shouldn’t wear Spandex.
A: I know [Laughter].
Q: When you played with the Colts did you ever pull a prank on Peyton Manning?
A: [Laughter] You know what? Peyton pulled a prank on me one time. It was him and Brandon Stokley. We were in training camp. At the end of the night, we were just about to go to sleep. The coaches usually came around to check on us. I heard this knock on the door, and thought, “Oh, it’s my coach.” I’m going to go let him in. So I go to open the door and leaning up against my door was a full, must have been four- or five-gallon trash can full of water, just dumped all in the room, all over the floor. And I just heard two people laughing down this hallway, Peyton Manning and Brandon Stokley. It was just a big ordeal but that’s just one of the things you find in the locker room; a group of guys who all get along and have fun with each other.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her check out FOX 9 “Buzz.”