Former NFL Star Ben Utecht on Dealing with Memory Loss

Former NFL Star Ben Utecht on Dealing with Memory Loss

Football and family were the focus of Ben Utecht's life, but now the injuries he suffered while playing the game he loved threaten to take him away from the people he cares for most.

Ben and Karyn with their daughters, Katriel, Haven, Amy Joan and Elleora

I should have known there was something wrong with me when I sustained my fourth concussion. It was the 2007 season, my fourth year in the NFL as a tight end for the Indianapolis Colts. We were the defending Super Bowl champs. In a game against the Denver Broncos, I was blocking for our running back. A Broncos defensive back leaped over me, trying to get to the ball carrier. His foot clipped the back of my helmet.

I only know what happened next because I watched it on film. I crumpled to the ground. Ten seconds later, I jumped up and sprinted to the sidelines, where I talked with my teammates and a doctor, who pulled me from the game. I had no memory of any of it.

I’d never experienced amnesia. Still, when I told my wife, Karyn, I didn’t make a big deal of it. I’d had concussions before. I’d always bounced back.

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I needed to bounce back. My contract was up at the end of the season, and I wanted to sign a long-term deal. It would mean financial security for Karyn and me and the family we hoped to start.

My list of injuries went back to junior year of high school: broken pelvis, ankle and foot; fractured ribs and vertebrae; torn abs. To borrow an expression from Karyn’s sport—she was a captain of the women’s golf team at the University of Minnesota, where we met—getting banged up is par for the course in football.

Four weeks later, I passed the Colts’ post-concussion protocol and was cleared to play. During the off-season, I signed a three-year contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Leaving my friends in Indianapolis was hard. I also left my mentor in the career I dreamed of having after football: music. I’m a big guy—six foot six and 250 pounds—and I have a big voice. My dad is a Methodist minister. I sang in his church as a boy. In high school I was in more choirs than sports teams. In college I sang at churches with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I did the same in Indianapolis.

My rookie season I spoke at a youth event. A woman in a Colts jersey ran up afterward and asked for my autograph. She was none other than Sandi Patty, a huge Christian music star. I wanted her autograph.

Sandi took me under her wing. In December 2007 I joined her onstage at the Indianapolis Festival of Lights. Singing with a Christian music legend in front of more than 100,000 people while wearing my Super Bowl ring was a dream come true, something only God could have orchestrated.

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I should have known there was something wrong in spring 2008, when I had trouble learning the Bengals playbook. None of it stuck in my brain, which was weird, because I’d always had a phenomenal memory. I didn’t connect it to my concussions, though. Concussions weren’t in the news back then. Two sets of doctors—on the Colts and the Bengals—had cleared me to play.

The 2008 season wasn’t a good one. I broke my sternum and tore my plantar fascia. But I went into the 2009 training camp in the best shape of my life. I had extra motivation: Karyn and I had had our first child, our daughter Elleora.

I should have known there was something wrong when I was knocked out on August 5, 2009. It was the first week of training camp, a routine blocking drill. I was supposed to handle the outside linebacker. That’s all I remember. The rest I pieced together from my teammates and from film (HBO’s Hard Knocks covered our camp).

The linebacker’s helmet came up under my face mask and hit me on the chin. I was out cold. Coaches, trainers and camera crews ran over. I came to before the ambulance got there. Hard Knocks showed my teammates praying for me. Paramedics rushed me to the ER. Doctors cut off my uniform and pads. Little did I realize that I would never wear a uniform in competition again.

I went through a bunch of tests. I had practically every symptom of post-concussion syndrome. Headaches, dizziness, sleeplessness, night sweats, sensitivity to light, loss of balance, fatigue, nausea, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, irritability.

I should have known there was something wrong when those symptoms didn’t go away. When every doctor I saw—including a neurosurgeon and concussion expert, Dr. Robert Cantu— told me I should never play football again. The Bengals cut me in November.

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Still, I made one last attempt to resurrect my NFL career. In April 2010, I finally passed the return-to-play protocol and tried out for the New England Patriots. I killed the workout but the Patriots didn’t sign me. Too big a risk with my concussion history, they decided. The end had come for me as a football player.

The question was: Who was I now? I thought I’d find the answer in music. We moved to Nashville in May. A few months later we found out Karyn was pregnant with twins. I’d felt so unsettled about the future, yet here was God with a double blessing. A reminder of what my parents had always taught me—to trust my future, my family, everything, to the Lord.

The birth of our twins, Katriel and Amy Joan, confirmed that trust. So did meeting Jim Brickman, the great adult-contemporary musician. Jim hired me for his Christmas 2011 tour.

We moved home to Minnesota that summer. Karyn would have help with the girls while I was on tour, and the girls would be close to their grandparents.

One night we went to see our good friends Matt and Kim Anderle. Matt was my teammate in college. He mentioned something about their wedding some years back. Karyn wanted to hear more. So Matt and Kim started telling stories.

About Ben Utecht

The cover image from Ben Utecht's Counting the Days While My Mind Slips AwayBen Utecht is the author of Counting the Days Until My Mind Slips Away: A Love Letter to My Family (Howard Books, 2016). Utecht is also a spokesman for the American Academy of Neurology and the American Brain Foundation, raising awareness for the issue of concussions in sports. Learn more at ben-utecht.com.

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