Former Colts Champ Ben Utecht Raises Brain Injury Awareness
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Ben Utecht grew up in an athletic family. In fact, he calls himself a three-sport athlete, having participated in football, hockey and baseball.
“Team sports in general were a significant part of my upbringing,” says Utecht, a four-year starter for the University of Minnesota as a tight end.
He had quite the memorable start to his NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts when he caught a pass from Peyton Manning during the third quarter and dodged Deion Sanders for a touchdown.
“That was a pretty overwhelming and special experience,” says Utecht, who was part of the Colts 2006 Super Bowl championship team.
Though it’s a great memory, Utecht went through a phase of memory loss as a direct result of playing the sport he loved. Though he had accepted that contact sports have the potential to create injury, at the time there wasn’t more education around concussions than there was around orthopedic injuries.
“You just kind of put them all into the same category,” Utecht says. “If anything, you probably thought an ACL tear was more serious than a concussion, so you didn’t really worry about it.”
Over the course of Utecht’s career, however, he sustained five documented concussions as well as countless undocumented concussions. As a tall guy, standing 6’6”, he took a lot of hits.
“I remember times when I was definitely concussed and kept playing,” he says.
He did so not because he felt pressured, but because he wanted to be there for his coaches, teammates and family, since it was his job – not to mention he adored the game.
“There are a lot of factors for why an athlete chooses to stay on the field,” he says.
After his fourth documented concussion against the Denver Broncos, he was diagnosed with amnesia. The next day, when he watched the play that caused the injury, he didn’t remember any of it.
“To watch a play unfold that shows you becoming unconscious and regaining consciousness, high-fiving teammates, running off to the sidelines, talking to coaches and staff, and in your own mind that whole experience didn’t exist because you can’t remember any of it – that’s a strange experience,” Utecht says.
Following that concussion, Utecht and his wife Karyn began to recognize challenges in his cognitive ability that didn’t exist previously, regarding working memory – one’s ability to receive and give information efficiently.
“I felt in a fog and was much more forgetful,” Utecht says. “I became a post-it note person, needing to write down everything to help me remember.”
While memory loss is different for everyone, it was episodic for Utecht. There would be significant memories, like being in a close friend’s wedding, that he simply couldn’t retrieve. Not even looking at photos served to jog his memory.
“Moments like that made my wife and I really begin to consider whether I should retire,” says Utecht, who did so in 2009.
“Retiring was very emotional. All of a sudden my identity as an athlete was over, but I wanted to do what I could to protect my brain going forward. It was a good move.”
He participated in cognitive training at LearningRx, a brain training center that helps clients who have suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) as well as those who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other difficulties.
“They test your cognitive abilities through a sound neurological evaluation, then build a program around how you can focus on your weaknesses and improve them,” Utecht says.
Before starting the program, his short- and long-term memory were in the 12th and 17th percentile, which was shockingly low. At the same time, the evaluation gave him peace.
“It showed I wasn’t making this stuff up,” he says.
He was still able to function, but his cognitive decline frustrated him. That frustration, in turn, let to impatience and a shorter fuse. Before starting the brain training program, Utecht had moments where he lost his patience much sooner than normal – sometimes at home with Karyn and their four daughters. The training, however, involved working in a chaotic environment where the brain has to force itself to focus and put up a shield around one’s own space.
“That helped me at home, because when you do three months of brain training in a room full of seven or eight other adults and children doing their program at the same time, then come home to four kids wanting to climb on you – well, it was an awesome healing experience,” he says.
After completing the 100-hour intensive program, Utecht’s short- and long-term memory numbers jumped to the 78th and 98th percentile – a remarkable improvement.
“Over the course of those 100 hours, my wife would tell you she got her husband back,” remarks Utecht, who at this same time was in the process of writing his memoir, titled “Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away.”
“The fact that all of my cognitive abilities came back was a miraculous ending to my autobiography,” says Utecht, who has always maintained a “pro-brain, pro-game” message.
Though he knows he made the right call in retiring, he misses being part of a team – especially a Super Bowl team.
“There’s something so special about it,” Utecht says. “It’s hard to express how fulfilling that was.”
After retirement, Utecht began working with the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). For several years, he even became the AAN’s national spokesperson on concussions. He transitioned to the American Brain Foundation (ABF) and joined their board for the last seven years. Now he’s working with Dr. Jeff Kutcher, a leading sports neurologist. Utecht received the 2014 Public Leadership in Neurology Award from the AAN and ABF. He’s received other awards for his awareness work in TBI.
Though awards are nice, at the end of the day Utecht wants his legacy to be rooted in faith and family.
“I want to be known as a man who loved God, loved his family and cared for his neighbor,” Utecht says. “The materialistic things are meaningless. Everything comes down to relationships.”
He thinks back to his youth and wishes he could tell that younger version of himself not to care so much about what people think of him.
“I was a pretty sensitive kid growing up, and I feel like it probably made me make some of my more regretful decisions as a young man because of that peer pressure,” Utecht says. “I wish I could go back and tell that kid to focus on what you know to be true about who you are and who you are created to be, and surround yourself with people who will support that rather than challenge it.”
He harbors no bitterness or regret for choosing to play football and make it a career.
“The life lessons, and the people I had a chance to learn from and play with, have been priceless, so I would definitely play football again,” he says. “I’d just probably play it a little differently.”