By Don Heinzman
Ben Utecht, who excelled for the University of Minnesota and two National Football League teams, is battling a new opponent: the effects of five major documented concussions. At the age of 33, he is experiencing some pockets of memory loss. Utecht has turned a letter he wrote, about his fear that someday he would be unable to recognize his wife and three daughters, into a song. It is the basis of a video, in which he sings the song, that already has had nearly 600,000 hits on YouTube.
The song “You Will Always Be My Girls” will be in his future album. He has been featured on national television news shows, and overnight he’s become a spokesperson for people suffering with brain diseases.
Utecht has attended a White House Summit on concussions, has testified before a U.S. Senate Committee, and, on July 31, will be telling his story about concussions at the United Nations. Already he is the national spokesperson for the American Academy of Neurology and also for the American Brain Foundation. He tells his audiences: “The most important part of us is the brain. It is a priority in my life.”
Since that video hit cyberspace, many have told him their personal stories about their bouts with the effects of concussions.
For Utecht, it seemed he had everything going for him: a family – his wife, Karyn, a former Miss Minnesota, and three daughters, Elleora, 5, and twins Amy and Katriel, 3 1/2 – a singing career ahead of him and a home in Lakeville. He played two successful years with the Cincinnati Bengals and earlier four years with the Indianapolis Colts. He caught passes from quarterback Peyton Manning when the Colts won the 2007 Super Bowl. He was forced to retire after his fifth major diagnosed concussion.
His rosy future changed one night when he asked a friend why he wasn’t invited to his wedding. His friend said Utecht was there, and he showed him a photograph in which Utecht was a groomsman and even sang. Knowing the long-term outlook of early memory loss, a friend suggested he write a letter to his wife and girls telling how he will always remember them, a letter he wrote while on a plane flight, with tears falling from his eyes.
That’s the letter he turned into the song.
Right now, his father, Jeff, a pastor at the Evangel United Methodist Church in Rochester, said Ben is living a normal life but wonders what lies ahead 30 years from now.
Utecht said the answer to the epidemic of head injuries is research, to which he’s dedicating his life.
Utecht has a message for parents whose child suffers a concussion: “Take your child to a neurologist, who is an expert in the diagnosis of brain trauma issues.” He urges parents of athletes competing in middle and high school to recognize the symptoms of a concussion and be aware of all of the health information. To high school coaches, Utecht says: “Put the health of your athletes first. The brain is more important than winning.” He knows that it’s important to tackle and hit hard, but it’s more important to protect the health of the players. “My goal is to change the nature of the game to make it as safe as possible.”
Looking back, Utecht says he had his “bell rung” playing for Hastings high school, but in those days you just shook it off.
His first diagnosed concussion happened when he was practicing with the University of Minnesota. He recalls that after one diagnosed concussion in a game with Baylor, he was back on the practice field in two days. Now seven to 10 days rest is recommended.
Utecht said he is surprised by the response to the video. “I am trying to be honest and sincere, and I’m pleased that my music and the video can be used,” he said.
“My mission revolves around the health of people.”
Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers Inc.