Utecht adjusting to life after football

LOS ANGELES — Ben Utecht has a Super Bowl
ring and a lot of good memories of his NFL career. He also has a memory that
isn’t what it used to be.

Five concussions will do that. Utecht, 30, spent four full seasons
as a tight end with the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals until a
blocking drill at Bengals training camp in 2009 ended everything. He lay
unconscious on the field, had to be carried off on a stretcher, and that was
it.

 

No more football. No more Sunday afternoons in sold-out stadiums.
And, thankfully, no more concussions.

You figure Utecht got robbed. He was still young and good enough
to play in the league. But he was also smart enough to know you don’t mess with
concussions, no matter what team doctors tell you. At some point, you realize
the risk of playing isn’t worth the reward.

 

So Utecht quit, although reluctantly.

 

It was easy enough to segue into a second career. Utecht possesses
a gifted classical pop singing voice, one good enough to put him on stage with
Grammy-nominated pianist Jim Brickman. Utecht recently completed a
cross-country tour with Brickman at Pepperdine University in Malibu.

 

Utecht now goes by his given name of Benjamin, figuring that in a
world of Andre Bocellis and Michael Bubles, a guy named Ben might not fit. Ben
is for tight ends who measure 6-foot-6, weigh 245 and love to bang bodies.

 

“I never had a chance to use my real name outside of when I got in
trouble and my mom would use it when I was growing up,” Utecht said. “It’s one
of those things where I can bring a little bit more classical perspective to
who I am as a singer.”

 

Hard as it was to give up his NFL career, he knew there was no
choice. He was beginning his second season with the Bengals after winning Super
Bowl XLI with Peyton Manning and the Colts in 2006. His memory of the training camp
incident is a blank; he relies on photos to recall what happened.

 

“I don’t remember any of it,” Utecht said. “From the pictures I’ve
seen, I was on the ground. The trainers told me I was out for almost 90
seconds, which is a long period of time to be unconscious, and it was one of
those things where they had to go through the serious protocol when a player
has a situation like that. They had to unscrew the facemask, put me on a
stretcher and take me off the field.”

 

Utecht had suffered four previous concussions, but league
guidelines weren’t as stringent as they are now. On every previous occasion,
doctors checked him out, then sent him back on the field.

 

“I was in the NFL for six years,” said Utecht, who was on the
Colts’ roster 2005-07 (he was on the physically unable to perform list in ’04)
and the Bengals’ in 2008 (reserve/injured list in ‘09). “I think what I really
felt is that I wasn’t given all the information about my concussions, and now,
at 30 years old, I struggle at times with memory issues. It’s because of
experiencing consequences like that that we had to take a really hard look at
my career as an NFL player. My wife and I had to step back and really ask tough
questions.”

 

The answers were even tougher. Utecht’s wife, Karyn, had just
given birth to their first child. Utecht was already experiencing some memory
loss. Who knew what might happen if he tried to play again and sustained
another concussion?

 

Even so, he wanted one more chance. The Bengals released him, and
after he was cleared to play nine months later, he worked out for the New
England Patriots. It went well, he said, but all this was happening at the same
time a congressional committee was taking a long look at how the league handles
head injuries.

 

“The workout went fantastic,” Utecht said. “I think the response
was really good to my agent, but at the end of the day, the concussions were an
integral reason the relationship didn’t go further.”

 

Maybe that was a good thing. Utecht filed a grievance against the
league and visited with doctors to seek their opinions about his injuries. He
learned things that he said NFL physicians never told him.

 

“As I went and got my second opinion and met with two neutral
physicians throughout my grievance situation, I started gaining all this
information that had been out there and started doing my own research and
learning all these things that have been case studies for the last 15 years,”
he said.

 

“For a guy like me that has passions and an identity outside of
football, these things are important to know. My decision-making process after
my second and third concussion might have been different vs. continuing to
(play). It’s all a little subjective and tough to say, but I really believe the
more balance you have in anything you do, the more prepared you are to make
decisions.”

 

Asked why he believes the league wasn’t more forthcoming about the
risks he faced by continuing to play, Utecht said, “I think whoever can answer
that is really going to (shed) some light. I don’t know. I want to know the
answer to that question.”

 

He’s not the only one seeking answers. Former Dallas Cowboys
running back Tony Dorsett recently joined a group of 300 former NFL players who
are suing the league and, in some cases, helmet-maker Riddell for not warning
them about the dangers of concussions. And Tregg Duerson, the son of former
Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, also has filed suit against the league and
Riddell, claiming the league’s failure to tell players of a link between
repeated concussions and degenerative brain disease led to his father’s suicide
in 2011.

 

“I think they probably feel threatened a little bit,” Utecht said
of the NFL. “You’ve got major litigation coming down, and now with the recent
lawsuit with (Duerson), there’s a lot of pressure the NFL is facing for how
they handled that injury.

 

“To a certain extent, they’ve done a really good job picking up
the slack, and they’ve put the right pieces of the puzzle together to make
athletes more educated and give them more of a sense of stability and
understanding when it comes to that injury. Can there be more done? Yeah, I
think so. I’m hoping as this continues over the next couple of years that we
see strides in what they’re doing to protect players.”

 

Utecht hopes others won’t have to go through the same kind of
memory lapses he does on occasion. Several months ago, for instance, he had a
business meeting set up at his home in Minnesota and went out that morning to
buy food and drinks. He sat down with Karyn and their three daughters and
waited for his guests to show up. No one came.

 

Utecht had forgotten that the meeting had been canceled on the
phone the night before and confirmed in an email.

 

“Here we are sitting there, 30 minutes past the time when
everyone’s supposed to be there, and I’m asking, ‘Why aren’t these people
here?’ ” he recalled. “My wife said, ‘Maybe you should look at your email.’ I
checked and found the message from the night before.

 

“It’s like I totally forgot an entire conversation. It’s kind of
scary.”

 

During his singing performances, Utecht writes the lyrics to his
songs on paper and tapes them to the floor of the stage, just in case. And he
worries that if he’s getting forgetful at age 30, what will happen when he’s 40
or 50 or 60? Will he have early onset of dementia?

 

“Absolutely, it’s definitely a concern,” he said. “That’s why I’m
such an advocate for this and why I’m going to continue to be an ambassador for
improving this. This is not a knee; it’s not an ankle or a shoulder. This is
your personality, your identity. It’s what makes you who you are. Your mind is
so fragile and important. We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can.”

 

Utecht said he remains friends with Manning, his former Colts
teammate, who has undergone at least three surgeries on his neck and might
attempt to return next season. In their Super Bowl season, Utecht caught a
career-high 37 passes for 377 yards from Manning.

 

What advice would he offer Manning?

 

“I know how much he loves this game,” Utecht said. “He’s got a
brilliant mind, and he doesn’t make decisions without being incredibly
informed. There’s not much you have to tell a guy like that.

 

“He’s always inspired me to be the best that I can be. I think the
main reason for that is heart. So my advice to Peyton would be to follow your
heart. Step back and look at your life and ask yourself what’s most important.
Whatever that first reaction is that you get in your heart, seize it, grab hold
of it, don’t let it go. Follow it.”

 

That’s what Utecht is doing. He has a Super Bowl ring, and now
he’s enjoying the next stage of his life. But you wonder, would he do it again?

 

“I’ve never really asked myself that question because I don’t really
want to think about the answer,” he said. “But I truly loved my NFL experience.
The six years I played were a dream come true. To be on that field with such a
special team in 2006, standing next to guys like Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning
and winning the championship is something that will live on — not only for me
and the rest of my life but my children’s lives and their children’s lives.

 

“That’s a memory we’ll always have. So I definitely think that
every injury I sustained was worth that much. I’m just glad I had the
opportunity to get out when I did. If I had played more, I might not be able to
say that.”