A little less than a decade ago, professional football player Ben Utecht returned to his native Minnesota and was reminiscing about old times with one of his best college friends and their wives when the subject turned to the friend’s wedding.
Suddenly, a puzzled Utecht asked his buddy, “Why wasn’t I at your wedding?” The table got uncomfortably quiet, and then the couple brought out a photo album with page after page of photos showing Utecht as a groomsman and singer at the wedding.
“I don’t remember a single moment from that day,” Utecht told a rapt audience of more than 100 people Friday afternoon during a sports medicine and concussion symposium at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.
That was the final straw, Utecht said, that made him realize it was time to walk away from the game he loved.
Utecht, who suffered five documented concussions during a football career highlighted by winning the 2007 Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, said his brain injuries came at the dawn of the concussion crisis striking the National Football League. A former star for the Minnesota Gophers, the tight end played four seasons for the Colts, catching passes from future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, and two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.
He told the crowd about his last two concussions. The fourth came in 2007 in the first quarter of a game against the Denver Broncos when he slipped to the turf while blocking a defensive end and a defensive tackle tried to jump over him, just clipping the back of Utecht’s helmet with his cleats. Utecht doesn’t remember the incident or the rest of the game, but he has watched the game film showing his body go limp when he lost consciousness for a few seconds before reawakening, talking to teammates and sprinting off the field.
“That was the first time it ever became scary for me,” Utecht, 36, said in an interview. “My wife and I said, ‘Wow, there’s something going on here.’ “
His fifth and final documented concussion — Utecht is sure he had more incidents of what football players used to call “getting your bell rung” that went undiagnosed — happened in August 2009 as he was doing a routine blocking drill in training camp. Utecht got hit under the chin and was knocked unconscious for about 90 seconds before being taken off the field on a gurney and whisked off to a hospital.
“That’s the last time I ever stepped on a football field,” he said.
As a result of those concussions, Utecht increasingly struggled with his memory. He began to frequently lose his train of thought in mid-sentence, forget why he had entered a room and rely on sticky notes to remember almost anything.
“I was living in a world of fear that I potentially have a future with brain disease, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Utecht said about the dark period between his retirement and the time he published his 2016 book “Counting Days While My Mind Slips Away: A Love Letter to My Family.”
But Utecht’s story is not all doom and gloom.
A little more than a year ago, Utecht decided to do what he could to stop the erosion of his brain function. He started a brain-training program that required him to spend more than 100 hours doing cognitive exercises such as memorizing lists of random words and numbers.
Testing before months of the sessions began showed his short- and long-term memory were at the 12th and 17th percentile for a person his age. By the end of the program he tested at the 78th and 90th percentile.
“It has been life-changing,” Utecht said. “My wife will tell you she got her husband back.”
Through his platform as a former NFL player, spokesman for the American Academy of Neurology, board member for the American Brain Foundation and motivational speaker, Utecht said he hopes to spread a message of hope about treatment for brain injury patients and increase awareness of concussion symptoms and the importance of taking them seriously.
Yet even after all he has been through, Utecht insisted he still loves football and doesn’t think the sport he began playing as a kid with his dad in the backyard of their home in Lindstrom, Minn., should go away despite the rising number of cases of former football players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
But he does want the culture to continue to change to emphasize eliminating blows to the head and taking all recommended medical precautions with athletes who sustain concussions. No exceptions.
“I always try to have a pro-brain, pro-game message,” he said.
Regarding how parents should approach contact sports with their children, Utecht acknowledged those are tough decisions. With four daughters, Utecht doesn’t have to decide about football, although he noted soccer and hockey also carry concussion risks.
When Dr. Michael Stuart, chairman of the Division of Sports Medicine and professor of orthopedic surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., asked him what his approach would be if he had sons who wanted to play football, Utecht said he believes delaying entry to contact sports such as football is a prudent way to reduce head trauma in children with developing brains. If he had sons, Utecht said, “There’s no chance they’d play (football) before age 13.”
Dr. Scott Spritzer, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire who joined Stuart as part of a panel discussing concussions, emphasized the importance of educating the public about concussion symptoms, taking steps to limit concussions and ensuring that athletic teams at all levels follow the recommended protocols for caring for athletes who suffer head injuries.
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