LAKEVILLE, Minn. — Of the dozens of tiny shoes scattered across the garage, Ben Utecht kicks aside a pair of pink Crocs in order to open the door to his home. Once inside, he incites a mini-stampede.
“Daddyyyyy!” squeals 7-year-old Elleora, the eldest of Utecht’s four daughters. She greets her father with a bear hug around his legs and then cartwheels across the living room in her aqua leotard. “I’m so glad you’re home!”
Utecht was gone for only two hours, but he feels a lump in his throat watching Elleora cartwheel again. He seers the image into his brain, but knows he may not be able to access it someday.
“I try to value every moment, no matter how small,” he says. “Until recently, I never realized how special memory is.”
At 35, the former tight end is fearful for his mental health— the ultimate price of having suffered five major concussions between college and pro football. To preserve the memories he still has, Utecht wrote a book, Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away, that is framed as a love letter to his family.
“This book is a keepsake,” Utecht says. “I wanted to provide content for my daughters to be able to hold on to, to have forever.”
* * *
Undrafted coming out of Minnesota in 2004, Utecht lasted five-plus NFL seasons with the Colts and Bengals, catching 87 passes for 923 yards and three touchdowns.
To some, he’s best remembered as the hulking, durable tight end for the Colts when they won Super Bowl XLI at the end of the ’06 season. To others, he’s best remembered for his endeavors away from the field, having sung in 16 Christmas shows with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
The last of his five major concussions was documented on the 2009 season of Hard Knocks, when he was with the Bengals. On Aug. 5, a linebacker’s helmet hit Utecht right above the face mask, leaving the tight end unconscious on the field for more than 10 minutes. An entry from his journal four days later read: “Random headaches, dizziness, sleeplessness, night sweating, loss of balance, fatigue, nausea, hard time driving in car, forgetting sentences, hard to concentrate, irritability, sadness, snapping at wife.”
Utecht writes in his book that the Bengals initially blocked his attempts to receive a second opinion from Dr. Robert Cantu in Boston; three weeks after his concussion he hadn’t seen an independent neurologist, neurosurgeon or doctor who specialized in the brain. Still, he was placed on injured reserve. By October, Dr. Cantu had been consulted; he and team doctors cleared Utecht to do “light” aerobic activity, though Utecht writes that “no one from the team’s medical or training staff gave me any sort of workout plan to follow. Basically it was left to me to figure out.” When Utecht’s headaches subsided by mid-October, he says, Thomas Sullivan, the team’s neuropsychologist, gave him permission to increase his workload to a “moderate level.” Utecht began lifting weights but was still largely unmonitored by the team. One day he attempted a triceps-extension with a 45-pound free weight, and his vision began to go black. In November he tried lifting again, and also began to do light jogging.
Utecht has no memory of a friend’s wedding. Not only was he a groomsman, but he also sang at the event.
Without warning, the Bengals cut him on November 18. Utecht filed a grievance, arguing that he never should have been cleared to play.
Cleared to play?
In his book, Utecht writes:
I called Dr. Cantu's office. When I told him what had happened he was nearly speechless.
“Who cleared you to play?” he asked.
“I don't know," I replied. "The only doctor I have seen of late was Tom Sullivan, I met with him a week ago.”
“But he's not a medical doctor. He shouldn't be able to make that call,” Dr. Cantu said.
“There's a lot that's happened that seems a little unusual,” I said.
After a three-year legal battle, Utecht was awarded the remainder of his 2009 salary.
“Culture is such a buzzword these days, because it’s the only word that can describe when you have really good people working in a system that is broken,” Utecht says. “Because they work in a system that is broken, they make decisions sometimes that have a negative effect on individuals. It wasn’t a matter of the NFL or the Bengals ever being ill-equipped to handle my concussions. There just weren’t procedures or regulations in place, and that’s a problem.”
In December 2009, the NFL fortified its return-to-play protocols; teams were instructed to have concussed players consult independent neurologists.
Utecht has emerged as an advocate for brain trauma research and treatment. He testified before Congress about concussion issues in 2014. He gave more than two dozen presentations last year, mostly at corporate events. One of his themes centers on valuing memories and making the most of moments; the other is about leadership and teamwork and his experiences with the Colts.
“I’m not an anti-football guy,” says Utecht, who treasures his diamond-encrusted Super Bowl ring. “I’m not a bitter guy. I believe in advocacy, and I believe in justice, and the power of good. I hope in this book you’ll see more than the controversy or dirt. It’s a lifestyle book.”
* * *
The son of a Methodist minister, Utecht approached football with a Midwest sensibility. He battled through a broken foot as a four-year starter at Minnesota and overcame other joint and muscle ailments as an undrafted free agent. Utecht says that from high school through the NFL, he can’t calculate the amount of pain, anti-inflammatory pills or shots he took. “I don’t think there was even one week where I didn’t have to take something, even if it was as small as an Advil,” he writes.
In Indianapolis, Utecht battled not only his own health, but also a crowded tight end room (Dallas Clark, Bryan Fletcher and Ben Harstock). He evokes a popular sports anecdote throughout his book, about how Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games streak started when he took over for an injured Wally Pipp. Colts coaches framed the anecdote from Pipp’s perspective, telling players to fear being replaced.
Utecht doesn’t regret playing football but wishes he had stopped after his fourth concussion, with the Colts in 2007. And yet, as Utecht watched footage of Aaron Hernandez’s arrest in 2013, he called his agent to see if the suddenly tight end-needy Patriots might be interested in bringing in a veteran. (They weren’t.)
The most harrowing passages of the book involve Utecht’s memory loss, which dates back to his playing days. When his former Colts teammate Dylan Gandy and his wife, Melody, visited Utecht for lunch in 2007, Melody commented on the upgrades that Ben had made to his house.
“Melody, when were you here before?” Ben asked.
Melody and Dylan were incredulous; they had visited just a few months earlier.
Utecht also has no memory of a friend’s wedding. Not only was he a groomsman, but he also sang at the event.
“It's the most awful feeling,” he says. “Not knowing what else might slip away, too.”
Last year Utecht underwent a 20-week, 100-hour intensive brain-training program at LearningRx in Minnesota. He says it has improved parts of his memory. His baseline testing showed that his short-term memory was in the 12thpercentile and his long-term memory was in the 17th. “Both not good at all,” Utecht says. After the training, the same tests showed increases to the 78th and 98 percentiles, respectively.
“Writing the book was therapeutic,” says Utecht, who moved back home in 2012. “Here in Minnesota, I was in the land of memories.”
Old ones—and new ones, too.
• Question? Comment? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org